Well hello there, gentle readers. It’s been a while, due to October over-scheduling, various school-induced illnesses, and a random storm that knocked our power out for four days. (When it came back on, I made another donation to a charity helping out in Puerto Rico.)
Flashlights swooping, we have sallied into November, and the exciting chaos that is National Novel Writing Month. (NaNoWriMo to its friends.) The challenge is for people to write a novel (50,000 words) over the month of November. According to their website, almost 400,000 people participated last year, with over 34,000 completing the challenge. Will you walk out of it with a bestselling novel ready to be published? Of course not. But you’ll have set a habit, got some words down, and become inspired. I’ve done it (and completed the challenge) five times, and I’m diving in again this year.
Before I return to the world of my novel, I thought I’d drop by here with a few books. A cornucopia of reads; I’m not even going to pretend they have something to do with each other. They are of good use on a dark November evening, even if you have to read by flashlight. Five delights for you: Animals Strike Curious Poses, No One Can Pronounce My Name, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Just One Damned Thing After Another, and Going into Town.
Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello
This series of essays is some of the best creative nonfiction I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. Consisting of seventeen short essays about animals, or more precisely, how animals interact with humans, it is fascinating. Some of the essays are more narrative, some are poems. There is incredible diversity in the writing style and connections between humans and animals. The portraits move (roughly) forward in time from early humans stalking mammoths through the age of exploration to the space age.
You’ll learn about Mozart and his assistant starling (! I know!), the parallel tracks of electricity, electrocution, and elephants, and a determined spider in space. There are no sappy “My dog is my only child” pieces here. Passarello demands that we give our animal neighbors the respect they deserve. Any one essay could stand on its own, but as an oeuvre, they are a masterpiece detailing humanity’s intersection with the rest of the kingdom.
No One Can Pronounce My Name, Rakesh Satyal
This is a project of epic proportions tackling families, immigration, grief, LGBTQ rights, and finding yourself. Ranjana, a recent empty nester, works to find a sense of purpose and the courage to pursue her dream of writing, while struggling with her distant husband. Harit, another immigrant, struggles to support his mother in her grief following a family death. He is working a fairly lousy job and has no friends, no clear direction for his life.
Their stories take a long time to intersect, requiring the interference of myriad other fascinating characters. As the novel continues, it delves into the many meanings of community and family, and the courage to be true to yourself, wherever that path leads. The writing is clear and at times strikingly beautiful. The book does occasionally feel long and wrapped a bit too neatly for my tastes. Enjoyable anyway. Bonus points for inclusion of a famous Indian-American author who has a different name here but absolutely must be Jhumpa Lahiri.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
I have always loved Shirley Jackson. I first encountered Jackson through her traumatizingly brilliant short story “The Lottery.” Somehow, although that story is seared on every part of my brain, I never sought out this book. Reading it by flashlight the day before Halloween really contributed to the experience.
Mary Katherine Blackwood lives with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian in the wreckage of a great family tragedy, in the midst of a village full of people who hate them. Whether this hatred is justified, and to whom it should be directed are the main questions of the novel.
I am convinced that no one writes an unruly, dangerous mob as well as Jackson. Few others can come close to her twisted, complex narrator. The mysteries are threaded through gorgeous language and keen description of place. Jackson has an eye for the evil, the good, and the disturbing in-between in us all.
Brilliant depictions of light, forest, and the rough edges of our narrator make for a profoundly thrilling read.
Just One Damned Thing After Another: The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, Jodi Taylor
This book is truly, as it claims in the author’s bio, a whole bunch of genres mushed together. St. Mary’s is a time-traveling organization which sends historians back in time to resolve disputes and perform research. We follow Max, a new recruit, as she becomes assimilated. There is wild adventure, romance, science, history, and of course, bad guys. There are hints of the mythic, with “History” itself playing a role. There are dinosaurs, peasants, and burning libraries.
The beginning parts are occasionally a bit rushed, as we need to catch up from “no-nothing newbie” to “powerful historian,” but there is no denying this is a super fun page-turner, which is what is driving its popularity. (There’s a whole long series of these now, by the way.) It was the most excellent escapism through some of the more depressing parts of the power outage.
This book was self-published originally, and occasionally I found vestiges of that. There were a few random typos and some strained dialogue, but that shouldn’t hold you back – this book is too much fun to be persnickety about.
Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast
Reading Roz Chast’s cartoons always makes me feel better. This won’t take you an hour straight through, but it manages to capture all the varied chaos and brilliance of New York City. With helpful guides to the streets and subways, Chast is funny and, as always, super observant without drifting into nostalgic fawning. My kids were drawn into this one as I was reading, pointing out the places they know, Grand Central Station, the lions at the NYPL. This would be the perfect gift for the city-lover in your life.