Margaret Renkl‘s debut,Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.
Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.
In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.
When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patters and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things. She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.
On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:
The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.
In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.
The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.
In How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper explores loneliness and isolation as a modern phenomenon from the perspective of a man in pursuit of his own happiness. Fascinated by a news piece about government agencies responsible for burying those who die alone, Roper tells this story from one such government employee named Andrew—a 42-year old who spends day in and day out bearing witness to the lives of the poor and lonely. Some of the people Andrew deals with have been dead for months before anyone realizes, and those who come around afterward claiming to be friends of the deceased are often opportunists hoping to stake a claim on anything they might have left behind.
Every year his department sees an increase in these lonely deaths, but no one is worried about Andrew. Everyone knows he has a wife and kids to go home to every night…at least that’s what they believe. For five years, Andrew’s been harboring a secret. A misunderstanding during the interview for his position becomes the lie that he’s too embarrassed to rectify. When his boss suggests the department staff bond by visiting each other’s houses for dinner, Andrew is faced with the weight of his lie and the mortification that will come when people find out he doesn’t actually have a family. The wife and kids he made up in his interview don’t actually exist.
Over time, he creates intimate details about his imaginary family, creating endless fabrications about who they are as individuals and the goings on of their daily activities. Allowing himself to fall into that world is a comfort, one that bars him from the reality of his life. The relationship with his only living relative—his sister, Sally—is strained at best. She feels obligated to call him every few months out of guilt over their shared past and a trauma that she has never been able to help Andrew get over—a trauma he refuses to address, but which he is triggered by often. When Sally dies, he’s forced to contend with her leftover guilt and the ways in which he never allowed himself to open up to her.
It’s the constant proximity to the reality of living life alone that forces Andrew to take comfort in the little things he places around himself as a shield—his nonexistent family, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and his model train collection. The only substantive personal interaction he has on a daily basis is with the other model train enthusiasts he chats with on an online forum. Such is Andrew’s life until Peggy comes along.
Peggy is funny and genuinely warmhearted. She tries to comfort Andrew after Sally dies, even as she struggles with the tragedy of their work and her own marital problems; she befriends him even when he makes doing so difficult. Interacting with others is difficult for him, but he soon realizes that it’s easy to talk to Peggy. They develop a routine—house inspections together and lunch at the pub on Fridays. Like a brick to the face, he comes to understand one day that he’s made a friend.
But how can he be a friend? Peggy is honest with him, and Andrew continues to hide from his past and has yet to reveal the hoax that is his family.
Roper’s efforts in this novel are often genuinely warmhearted and funny, especially in its first several chapters. The flashback to Andrew’s interview—and a handful of his other foibles—are laugh-out-loud funny. As a non-fiction editor by trade, Roper has a grasp of economical writing and tells the story with spot-on pacing. As the story progresses, some elements of the story come across as haphazard and hastily drawn within the narrative, e.g. the feud with his brother-in-law and his somewhat relentless obsession with quirkiness. Regarding the latter point—quirkiness is fine. Lovable even. But relying too heavily on, say, Andrew’s obsession with Ella Fitzgerald or his love for model trains—while ultimately essential to the plot—become affected rather than naturally occurring.
Fans of Gail Honeyman‘s wonderful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Finewill find more than a few similarities with How Not to Die Alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roper drew inspiration from Honeyman’s debut, which was a massive success in the UK before hitting shelves here. His efforts are admirable, and a lot of the narrative’s shortcomings are made up for in dialogue and wittiness, but the finesse and the distillation of these novels’ major themes—loneliness, isolation, and the means by which we open ourselves to friendship—is exemplified more wholly in Honeyman’s Eleanor than it is in Roper’s Andrew.
All that being said, How Not to Die Alone is still a nicely done novel that successfully explores the tragic reality of people spending the final years of their life alone. While it doesn’t delve too far into the wider causes of this increasing likelihood—Roper choosing to focus on Andrew’s personal struggles—the topic is done some modicum of justice.
Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.
The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.
Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?
Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.
In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.
I’m a little embarrassed to say that my goal of writing about every book I read this year crumbled about a month and a half into 2019. Instead of trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed (which was the original plan. Yikes), I’m going to write up a brief recap of everything I read in February and the beginning of this month. I might delve a little deeper into a few of them in separate posts, but until then–this foothold:
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel–winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction–is the most well-crafted book I’ve read this year. As a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Shamsie builds her novel around the play’s central plot device: the repatriation of a body. We don’t know who it will be, or how the events will unfold, but we have five locations and five narrators leading the reader to one of the best endings in fiction I’ve read in many years.
Shamsie breathes life into fully formed characters–molding them from the bones of an ancient narrative that carries just as much weight today as it did thousands of years ago. The five perspectives of Shamsie’s characters create a complex image of Muslim identity in the West, and, in turn, render, discover, and reject the notion of “home” as events unfold. Her retelling shows us that these constructions of identity remain the same, whether they rest on nationality, ethnicity, or religion.
“Mr. Salary” by Sally Rooney
I’ve made it known far and wide that I love Sally Rooney’s work. The way she renders emotion and the minutiae of relationships with inimitable precision will earn her a place among the greatest writers of my generation. Her short story, “Mr Salary,”–first published in Granta in 2016–functions as a skeleton for her first novel Conversations With Friends. More than anything else, I was intrigued to see the matter of her brilliant first novel as it was in its earliest iterations.
The Friend Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel is not one I would have read of my own accord. It appeared on several “best of” lists at the end of last year, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a sucker for those. I actively try to read books I’ve never heard of or ones I would not normally read. When it comes to literature, I am easily persuaded.
In this instance, I wish I’d spent time reading something else. The Friend wasn’t a bad book, but it lost focus early on. Ostensibly, this novel is about the narrator’s loss of a close friend who has committed suicide. After his death, she ends up taking ownership of the friend’s Great Dane. Had the narrative focused on the loss of the friend and the narrator’s subsequent care of the dog, the book might have made a better case for itself. Even better if it had focused on one of those two things more than the other. In my opinion, the narrator’s exploits with the dog are the book’s strongest elements.
Unfortunately, Nunez ends up weaving three distinct narrative threads–the narrator’s contemplation of the friend’s death, the narrator’s reflection on man’s relationship with animals, and the narrator’s thoughts on the changing nature of those who become writers–much to the books detriment. To her credit, Nunez moves between these three elements fairly well, but it’s too much to tackle in a book that’s just over 200 pages.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This was my go-to gym read during the early weeks of February. Kwan transports readers to the wealthiest places on earth in this novel, which is not something I would typically care to read about, but I heard a lot of positive things, and I was looking for something light to read. Nothing about the main romantic plot line is original in any way, which is fine. The novel’s appeal, I thought, stemmed from its intimate knowledge of how the ultra-wealthy of Southeast Asia live their lives. More than that, it was entertaining and funny–a solidly enjoyable read.
The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson
I loved the first installment of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, so this was a highly anticipated follow-up for me. The Vanishing Stair showcases Johnson’s great technical ability as a writer, but it lacked some of the first book’s polished shine. And as with so many second books in a trilogy, the plot of this one spends a lot of time setting things up for the final installment. Johnson did do a great job of lacing a lot of dark elements throughout the book without them becoming overwhelming, and overall, I think it was well done.
Cherry by Nico Walker
Much has been made of the fact that the author of this book is currently serving an eleven year sentence for bank robbery. Buzzfeed’s profile of Walker, published in 2013, details his horrific experiences in Iraq and his descent into PTSD. Obviously, a lot of autobiographical content went into Cherry, but it is ultimately fiction–brilliant, fucked-up, devastating, earth-shattering fiction.
The novel’s narrator is a dirtbag, but he’s likable–more and more so as the novel progresses. The book’s latter half, from the section called “Cherry” forward, is so gut-wrenchingly well-written that I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Walker had never before written fiction because what he’s produced says more about the futility and stupidity of war, and the pain of drug addiction, than any book I’ve read.
Cherry is now nominated for the PEN Hemingway Award, and it was (allegedly) Hemingway (though it probably wasn’t) who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit a typewriter and bleed.” And that’s what Walker did.
The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman
I was really looking forward to this book, but it fell far short of my expectations. Sarah Weinman published an article in 2014 linking Sally Horner’s kidnapping to Vladimir Nabokov’s classic controversial novel, Lolita. She adapted her article into this book, which was a huge mistake. There’s simply not enough information for a manuscript of this length. What you end up with is a lot of filler and very little substance.
I have no particular feelings about Lolita other than that–on a technical level–it is brilliant and deserves “classic” status. I did not know that Nabokov actively opposed the discussion of real life influences on his fiction, and I don’t really care that he felt that way because fiction is not real life and vice versa.
Weinman draws a lot from the fact that Nabokov briefly mentions Sally Horner’s kidnapping in the book (which makes it obvious that he knew about her, so I don’t understand why she felt the need to justify her argument with tenuous evidence?) to support her claim that Nabokov could not have written the book had he not mined Horner’s case for inspiration. I understand the concept of wanting to tell Sally’s story and return agency to a life that was filled with horror and tragedy, but to what end? Do we vilify Nabokov for writing his book? Weinman toes a weird line between respect and condemnation when writing about the Nabokovs, and it was unclear what she wanted the purpose of this book to be other than as a means for readers to bear witness to Sally Horner’s life.
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
I just watched both seasons of The Crown and thought this would be a fun book to read in tandem. It is meant to be funny but I didn’t find it so because of my age and deeply ingrained American-ness. As a whole, it gives readers a fairly comprehensive look at an improbable life. She was kind of an asshole, but also a bit of a legend. A little tragic, and almost entirely ridiculous.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong has an upcoming collection that Jia Tolentino–one of my favorite humans–recommended. I thought it would be prudent to read his debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds to learn more about his work. Some of his poems are very good. In general, specific lines and images stand out as exemplary elements rather than whole poems taking on the quality of greatness. He draws on visions of water and night and dreamscapes to build his poems, and it becomes repetitive by the end. I can only imagine he’s developed over time. I liked this collection enough to be optimistic about his new one.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
I read that Sally Rooney, Lisa McInerney, Harriett Gilbert, and a bevy of other writers/readers whose opinions I respect loved this book. It’s a slim novel, but it packs a lot of commentary about alienation, solitude, capitalism, and societal obligation into just 160 pages. The narrator–a thirty-six-year old convenience store worker named Keiko–is neurologically atypical in some undefined way. For eighteen years, she’s remained a part-time worker at this store because she’s found within its aquarium-like environment a microcosm of “normalcy” where she becomes a cog in a well-oiled machine.
A lot of Keiko’s observations are astute and genuinely funny, but I felt a little something might have been lost in translation, particularly as it pertains to the style of Murata’s sentences. Overall, it was really enjoyable and only slightly unnerving.
What happens when a group of friends travels to a remote estate in the Scottish Highlands for New Years? One would hope for an opportunity to catch up—to reminisce about old times and rekindle the connections that are becoming more tenuous as the years pass. Eight friends whose shared history encompasses more than a decade should be enjoying an exciting and carefree annual holiday. But the idyllic getaway they signed up for almost immediately takes a turn for the sinister as the group’s fault lines begin to shift, revealing irreparable damage just beneath their veneer of perfection.
Lucy Foley takes her cue from the Agatha Christie playbook in her fourth novel, The Hunting Party. We know from the beginning someone ends up dead. Who is the victim? And who among the handful of people staying at this remote lodge could have done it? Among the group of friends, there is the center: Miranda. She is the sun around which everyone orbits, and we quickly learn that she wields a certain amount of power over the others. There is Miranda’s distant husband, Julien; Bo and Nick, the perfect couple; Samira and Giles, new parents to an infant daughter; Mark, who is prone to violent outbursts; Mark’s girlfriend, Emma, the newcomer; and Katie, the shy, illusive watcher. The only other people present are the lodge manager, Heather, and the gamekeeper, Doug — both isolating themselves from the outside world as well as a strange Icelandic couple who show a little too much interest in the gore of hunting.
Like the best mystery writers, Foley reveals over time the circumstances leading up to the victim’s death, dropping breadcrumbs and peeling back layers as she moves back and forth through time in the narrative, which is told from the perspective of five characters: Heather, Doug, Miranda, Katie, and Emma. Geographically isolated and trapped by snow, the festive atmosphere quickly becomes a playing field for shifting power dynamics and the sad, grasping claw of highly-educated professional thirtysomethings in their effort to recapture the days of their youth, not realizing that, perhaps, too much has changed.
Foley examines the subtle shifts in mood—the secrets threatening to leak out—with razor-sharp precision, and infuses the nostalgia and half-baked attempts at fun with subtle hints of sadism, violence, and callous disregard as it flits through her characters’ minds. For Heather and Doug, she plumbs the depths of loss and grief. Most remarkably, the landscape itself takes on a life of its own, as though the freezing Scottish winds are sinking into the lodge fixtures as if through flesh.
Police can’t reach the lodge until the snow clears. With a murderer sitting amongst their numbers and no one else in sight, Heather begins piecing together what happened to the ill-fated guest. Foley paces the dual narrative perfectly until the two finally meet. Her combination of character study and atmosphere become the key ingredients of a tightly-wound, expertly crafted mystery. And once you begin this book, you won’t be able to stop.
Last July, Jia Tolentino published a retrospective review of E.L. Konigsburg’s 1996 masterpiece The View From Saturday. Her thoughts on the novel regarding its subtleties and the author’s clear, spare language encouraged me to read the book again. I must have been in 4th or 5th grade when I read it for the first time, slightly younger than the cosmically strange protagonists of the story, and I loved it. The idea of four precociously intelligent 11-year-olds bonded by an indescribable energy fascinated me at the time. Undoubtedly, I believed myself to be just like them, when, in fact, I was no where near as clever or formal.
The four students–Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, aka “the Souls”–represent Mrs. Olinski’s 6th grade academic bowl team. They decimate the competition and find themselves in the finals. No one can understand how these four random students outwitted teams of 7th and 8th graders. Even Mrs. Olinski can’t quite identify what drew her to her team. As the novel progresses, the narrative doubles back on itself with pieces of the story fitting into place as each character’s perspective is told.
As with all good novels, Konigsburg manages to say a lot through very little. She writes cleanly and clearly, but there’s an element of mysticism or magic (sometimes overt) in the way she tells the story. In many ways, the spareness of the book’s sentences convey the preternatural clearsightedness of the children and their ability to understand the things about themselves that those around them cannot.
So many of the details in this story would have been lost on me as a child. I loved the story, and I understood the idea of it. I thought it was perfect at the time. Nevertheless, the deftness of Konigsburg’s writing paired with the intricacies of the story’s plot never would have occurred to me.
When I read it for the first time, I was focused solely on the four kids, wholeheartedly wanting to be them. Mrs. Olinski’s realizations throughout the book didn’t register with me as much as they did when I read it as an adult. Her character seemed perfect, then, and wise. But there’s a moment when she goes to Silington House for the first time and she is overcome by jealousy at the family interactions going on around her. It’s a striking moment of rage that exemplifies just how masterful Konigsburg is as a writer.
One of my greatest flaws as a reader is loyalty. If I’m unimpressed by an author’s debut novel, I will continue to read the next two or three books they publish just to make sure the first wasn’t a fluke. Such is the case with Jasmine Guillory’s contemporary romance novels. Her first–The Wedding Date–had a handful of standout qualities: one of the romantic leads is a POC, the love scenes are functional if not a little derivative (but that’s to be expected. How original can you get with that sort of thing?), and the plotting is well paced. When I finished it, I thought my lukewarm reception had to do with the fact that I’m not naturally inclined to enjoy romance novels unless they’re of the Nora Ephron variety.
I picked up Guillory’s debut more or less because I enjoy quick reads when I’m in between books that take up a lot of my attention. I decided to read The Proposal out of sheer curiosity–I wanted to see where she would take the interwoven story line. I’ll admit I became invested in the characters enough to want to know what happens to them. If you really loved her debut, then you will certainly love the second book, because she follows The Wedding Date formula to a tee. It was, par for par, exactly the same as the first one, except The Proposal has more of an emphasis on female friendship and the nature of toxic relationships, which I thought was good.
To be clear, Guillory’s writing is not bad, but it is repetitive. Books of this nature tend to follow such a stringent formula that readers have to turn to the nitty-gritty details for substance, and there isn’t a whole lot of that in this book. But I also knew when I picked this book up it was likely to be the same as Guillory’s first, just with different characters. Her focus on diversity within the romance genre is reason enough to read her work, but I guess I was hoping for more? There was a little too much of the “I’ll show you my scars and you show me your scars and we’ll cry about it” kind of thing, but without any nuance or irony.
On the other hand, I think this book was doomed from the beginning in my eyes because I read Josie Silver’s One Day in Decemberjust a week or so ago. Boy was that a page-turner. It starts with a life-altering moment that leads to an unalterable series of events–a series of events that the reader cannot help but be invested in completely from the start.
So Silver’s debut was by threshold for acceptability going into this. Ultimately, it doesn’t really mean anything because I know I’m going to read Guillory’s third novel, which is coming out in June. I think the next one will be better than The Proposal because it introduces tension between its central characters at the beginning of the novel rather than near the end as the first two books have done. And since it features the same cast, the reader can expect a nice sense of familiarity. Maybe loyalty isn’t such a flaw after all…