The characters in Polly Rosenwaike’s debut story collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You, have children or choose not to, experience infertility, miscarriage, or abortion, and deal with postpartum depression and the aftermath of secrets and longing. They work inside and outside the home and renegotiate parental roles. They come together to form a portrait of modern life, centering on the struggles, choices, and realities of reproduction.
With stark images and metaphors (menstrual blood on white underwear “like a botched Japanese flag”) and an undercurrent of humor, Rosenwaike’s stories explore topics from women’s lives that are often underrepresented in contemporary literary fiction.
Rosenwaike has published stories, essays, and reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, The Millions, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is fiction editor for Michigan Quarterly Review, and lives in Ann Arbor with the poet Cody Walker and their two daughters.
The Millions chatted with Rosenwaike via email about secrets, plotting, and writing about women’s lives with honesty and humor.
The Millions: The experiences of the women in Look How Happy I’m Making You provide a window into traditionally underrepresented or ignored subjects. Did you find yourself freer in writing these stories, or wishing for more models to draw from? Were there any books or authors that served as inspiration?
Polly Rosenwaike: I’ve had a great number of wonderful models for writing about new motherhood, as well as about the experiences of young(ish) women and their relationships with their families and romantic partners. Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and numerous stories by Alice Munro have inspired me with their candor, artfulness, and humor about emotionally complex subjects in women’s lives.
I’d say I felt free in writing on these topics in the sense that writing has been for me, as I think it is for many shy or private people, a space in which I can be open about things I might not fully express to many others. I didn’t see myself as venturing into new territory—to the contrary, I worried that I might be treading on too-familiar ground (and indeed was told as much by several agents who rejected my collection).
TM: You tackle subjects that often carry social taboos: infertility, miscarriage, abortion, choosing not to have children. What was writing about these topics like? Did you get any pushback?
PR: I haven’t gotten any pushback, which I think speaks to the fact that everyone I’ve worked with on the book has understood that these are aspects of women’s reproductive lives and choices that are worth discussing and representing. My relationship to writing about each topic was different. I had two miscarriages, and I fictionalized this firsthand experience in various ways when I created the characters who have miscarriages in “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop” and “Tanglewood.” Like many people, I think, the prevalence of miscarriage wasn’t on my radar until a number of women I knew started getting pregnant, and a significant percentage of them had miscarriages. I think it’s scary to become aware of how common it is—10 percent to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage—but I also think it’s comforting to view it as a common part of the reproductive process, and to know that most women who have one will eventually have a successful pregnancy.
I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten pregnant only when I wanted to, and despite the miscarriages, I didn’t have to wait very long, and so I haven’t had an abortion or had to struggle with not conceiving. I entered into writing about those topics delicately, with the fiction writer’s hope that I would portray the lives of invented characters in a way that felt true. As for the matter of choosing not to have children, I find it frustrating that women are often judged harshly for what feels to me like a perfectly understandable choice. I really love how Sheila Heti takes on this subject in depth in her book Motherhood. In my story “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” I wanted to explore what happens when a couple disagrees about whether or not to have a child.
TM: This book explores grief, longing, and depression, and there’s also so much subtle humor from line to line. The title comes from Audrey in “Grow Your Eyelashes.” She doesn’t want children, and her mother tearfully tries to convince her that children bring joy. Audrey replies, “Look how happy I’m making you.” In “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” when Serena goes back to her job as a research librarian after maternity leave, she thinks, “No one would scream or fall ill because she hadn’t satisfied them.” How do you see humor informing your stories?
PR: My partner Cody Walker’s first book of poetry, Shuffle and Breakdown, has an epigraph from Richard Pryor’s stand-up show Live & Smokin’: “This ain’t as funny as we thought it was gonna be.” I wish my book were funnier. Cody’s books, let me just say, are really funny; I like to think I’ve learned a bit from him. He studied comic theory for his dissertation, and I stole some of his stuff for “A Lady Who Takes Jokes,” about a cognitive psychologist who does research on babies’ laughter. I think humor helps to cut the sentimentality that often accompanies the portrayal of new mothers and babies. And I love how it can work to intensify (rather than lighten) a dark and difficult situation. Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a wrenching story about a mother whose young child has cancer. It’s also terribly funny. That’s the kind of humor I aspire to—the kind that makes sadness and longing and fear even more acute.
TM: “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression” uses a listing device and structure to tell the story. How does experimentation play into your writing? Do you often write across different genres and forms?
PR: In my 20s, when I was trying to escape how hard it was to write a story, I puttered around with poetry, screenwriting, creative nonfiction; but it turned out those genres were just as hard. So I accepted my fate as a fairly traditional fiction writer. In the second-person story “Ten Warning Signs,” I really enjoyed how the structural framework—the 10 warning signs listed in a pamphlet about postpartum depression—helped me to generate material I might not otherwise have come up with. I’m hoping to experiment more with form and content in my next longer fiction project. And I have some hope of returning to genres I’ve abandoned. Though probably not poetry. I love to teach it, and I love to encounter it in my house (Cody writes a poem every single day), but it’s probably best that I stick to being a fan of poetry rather than a failure at it.
TM: Secrets are deeply woven into these stories, some shared and others kept hidden. How, for you, do secrets operate within fiction? Are they tied more closely to character or to plot?
PR: What an interesting question—I hadn’t quite thought about it, but yes, I guess there are a lot of secrets in these stories, and indeed, secrets play an important role in fiction generally. Everyone knows fiction writers are liars, right? Considering the characters that keep secrets in my collection, I think there’s something about their personalities—a deep insecurity mixed with pride, a calculated self-armoring—that makes this an enticing behavior for them. But for me as the writer, a character’s keeping a secret from other characters is definitely a means toward trying to increase the level of drama and conflict in the story. So in that way, it’s more closely tied to plot.
In “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,” it was quite late in the drafting process when I decided to have Cora hide her suspicion of having a miscarriage from her husband. I needed a way to externalize the conflict in their relationship and create more tension between them, and so I added in this secret. In “White Carnations,” it was always inherent to the story’s structure that when Karyn gets together with other childless, motherless women on Mother’s Day, she hides her pregnancy—until the final paragraphs, when revealing it to Anne allows the two women to get closer and the story to end with that moment of connection. My inclination has been to use secrets to explore the consequences for the characters rather than to conceal things from the reader. A reader of “The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy” figures out pretty quickly, I think, that the narrator has stopped taking the pill without telling her sort-of boyfriend. The narrative question, then, becomes, what will this deception mean for their relationship? For the deceiver herself?
TM: What were your early experiences and influences as a writer? What’s next, writing-wise?
PR: I’m going to interpret this “early” as really early, because I’ve wanted to grow up to be a writer for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was a great fan of Maud Hart Lovelace, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rumer Godden, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jennie Lindquist, Astrid Lindgren, Louisa May Alcott, Judy Blume. When my friend and I got the idea to make a celebrity cookbook like they do in a Sweet Valley Twins book (Yes, I read a lot of not-very-literary stuff too.), Judy Blume sent us a letter with a recipe for noodle kugel, which was hugely exciting. I never made the recipe, though, because it sounded gross, and I never made the cookbook because Judy Blume was the only celebrity who wrote us back.
As a girl, my favorite books were almost all by women writers, now that I think about it, and they were almost all realistic fiction. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, who lives on her own with a monkey and a horse (which she can lift up in the air), does stretch the bounds of realism a bit.
My grandmother’s first cousin Roz, an English professor who I think of as my first real-life literary influence, gave me a diary when I was about eight or so. It was royal blue with a shiny gold fan on it, and I viewed it as a sacred object, the beginning of my writing life. For many years, keeping a journal was the main genre of creative writing I practiced, and I see it as a precursor to the kind of fiction I began pursuing in my early 20s. Though my journals were certainly filled with lots of angst and emotional excess, I think articulating and obsessing over some of the elements of my daily life helped me develop an attention to detail and to “the mystery of personality,” as Flannery O’Connor calls it in her brilliant essay, “Writing Short Stories.”
Now I’ve conveniently run out of space and can’t discuss your second question. Writing about a work-in-progress feels to me like trying to describe a book I haven’t read.
TM: This collection seems to capture a significant cultural moment in that most (perhaps all?) of the mothers work, and parental roles are in negotiation. These stories collectively paint a portrait of working motherhood as the norm, rather than an either/or proposition. Was the idea of choosing to work in your mind while writing the book?
PR: Recently, Joshua Johnson interviewed Terry Gross on his NPR show 1A, and he asked about her plans for retirement. The gist of Gross’s answer: she plans to keep working as long as she can. Alluding to that oft-heard trope, “No one ever says on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office,’” she said something like (I’m definitely paraphrasing), “Well, you don’t say that if you don’t like your job, but I love my work.” The work in my own life—writing, teaching, nonprofit work, editing—has always been really important to me: intellectually, emotionally, practically. In the collection, I wanted to represent women who enjoy their work and find meaning in it. For most people, this doesn’t go out the window when you have a baby. It’s hard to manage everything, of course, but I think we need to assert that mothers have just as much reason and right to continue devoting themselves to their work lives as fathers, if that’s what they want to do.
TM: Is there a question about you or your work that you wish someone would ask? How would you answer it?
PR: I’m flattered that I’m being asked about myself and my work at all. A question I guess I’ve felt poised to answer, and did answer for my editor when she asked about it, is why I don’t have a birth story in the book. A few births are briefly alluded to—a sudden C-section in “June;” a “natural birth” that goes fine but “hurt so much you thought something must be terribly wrong” in “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression”—but for a collection of stories about having a baby, it might seem odd that this crucial experience is essentially skipped over. One reason why I avoided it is because I think childbirth often functions like the marriage plot trope, where a singular joyous event is meant to serve as the crowning culmination of a woman’s story. All the difficulty and pain of childbirth, as well as the hard work of mothering to come, is subsumed by the image of the shining newborn. For me, labor and childbirth, though certainly interesting—in the way that an extreme physical experience is interesting—was also a time when I felt least myself, most disconnected from the observing, reflective brain that I think of as me. It totally wiped me out. And so I didn’t write about it both in reaction to the way it’s often represented and because I couldn’t come up with a better way.
Corporate entities and media conglomerates have historically tended to take me for their target demographic. Representation? I’m a straight white man: I could be Walter White one day, Louis C.K. the next, and any Avenger I wanted (Tony Stark, obviously). “Everyone listens to me!” I could declaim, like Homer Simpson opening a can of Nuts and Gum.
Then my wife and I became parents, and I became a stay-at-home dad. Suddenly popular culture wasn’t an endless hall of mirrors, reflecting most superficial aspects of my life and circumstances back at me.
I had better luck when I turned to books. A number of writers were dwelling on parenthood and the seemingly impossible demands it made of artistic practice. But all of these writers were women. (There was one major exception, of course, which I’ll get to later.) Their subject wasn’t parenthood in a gender-neutral sense, but rather motherhood, an all-encompassing identity if ever there was one.
The wisdom in these books and related commentary seems to be that the roles of mother and writer are inherently in conflict. Give attention to your child and your writing suffers; give attention to your writing and your child pounds on the door of your office like the SWAT team. A feature article in New York magazine’s The Cut examined this conflict at length; Kim Brooks surveyed these books while detailing her own struggles to finish her manuscript while cutting up apple slices. She dubbed this subgenre “the literature of domestic ambivalence,” and its paradigmatic example was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Brooks comes across this book, appropriately enough, in the bedroom. She writes:
I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.” The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice.
She goes on to read many more works in this vein—sister books, you could say—including Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and Elisa Albert’s After Birth. You’ll notice that Brooks collects both fiction and nonfiction under this heading; Dept of Speculation is a novel related in aphoristic bursts, On Immunity is a book-length essay about vaccination and the demands of modern society. A body of literature about individual women performing multiple, even contradictory roles has the happy result of producing books that pick and choose from a wide breadth of styles and techniques, genre boundaries be damned.
I read these books and thrilled to the descriptions of quotidian tasks. Lyrical paragraphs about changing diapers! Ethnographic studies of playground moms! But there was a running theme in nearly all of these books that didn’t quite translate into my own experience. And no, it wasn’t breastfeeding. I used a bottle to feed my kids, sure, but I still recognized the semi-conscious state one falls into during that 3 a.m. feeding. What I didn’t experience was precisely that sense of domestic ambivalence, the conflict between the roles of artist and caregiver. This isn’t to say that writing while parenting is all paychecks and playdates. Far from it! I have two children under the age of five, and on a not-infrequent basis will I retreat to the kitchen, closing the childproof gate behind me, to get a few minutes’ peace and check Twitter while they watch Peppa Pig.
But for me, this struggle is an issue of resources more than identity. If only my kids napped more like when they were younger, or if only we had more money to afford a babysitter or daycare, then I could write more pages per day and feed my kids something other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Rather then being two states in opposition, I’ve found that domestic and artistic life have many parallels. Both involve shuffling around the house in sweatpants while accomplishing minor tasks: write a paragraph here, read Curious George there. Unlike Offill’s conception of the “art monster,” I discovered that the transcendent and the mundane make good partners.
Is my male privilege showing yet? “Wow, sir, congratulations on navigating the demands of art and life! You must be the first person in recorded history ever to accomplish such an apparently insurmountable task!” Yes, I get it. Women have been maintaining this balance for centuries before I came along. I think that this disconnect of mine says something about the nature of contemporary parenthood, and how expectations differ depending on who does it.
Back when my oldest child was first born, I experienced a burst of creative energy. I finished work that had stalled before I was a father; I did research for future projects. I wrote a complete rough draft of a novel in a couple months, then I went back and rewrote it again in a couple more months, and again, and again. In my first year as a father, I wrote more than I had in the previous five. I chalked this up to what I called the American Idol effect. Every season on the show, there was at least one contestant, if not multiple ones, who claimed that they were competing on their children’s behalf, to demonstrate that anything was possible, they should always follow their dreams, #staypositive. Supremely corny, yes, but if that’s where my motivation was coming from, I wasn’t going to question it.
After a while, I grew convinced that I was able to experience that creative burst because I had chosen, consciously and deliberately, to be a stay-at-home father. Granted, it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision to make. My wife earned more than I did, and had health insurance to boot. Still, it didn’t feel like I was backed into a corner. Conversely, my wife feels that the decision to continue working has been, in some sense, made for her, as she has to provide for our family. There’s a structural conflict to her side of our domestic arrangement, sometimes making her feel that she’s doing what she has to do while I, more or less, am doing what I chose to do. Not to say that she’s unhappy with the arrangement; raising a family together has shown us that she’s more comfortable going to work and earning an income, while I’m more comfortable staying home. But the mere fact that I’ve assumed an unconventional domestic role further demonstrates that it’s a choice I made for myself. It’s one that seems to work, too. Once my daughter started sleeping through the night (at six weeks—yes, I did win the lottery on that one), I was able to establish a routine that allowed me to write for a few hours every day while still keeping her alive. Work, family, a reasonable balance between the two: it’s what I want out of life, honestly.
My experience ran directly counter to much of Domestic Ambivalence Lit. The mothers writing these books often felt like the choice to care for their children wasn’t a choice at all, but an imposition foisted on them by the one-two punch of society and biology. This is, of course, one of the central struggles of modern feminism. Even if you can manage to assert yourself in a patriarchal culture and make an actual choice, is it the right one?
Related, and perhaps even more salient, is the fact that it’s easier to be a stay-at-home dad than it is to be a stay-at-home mom. Not in the terms of the workload, mind you. I change as many diapers and weather as many tantrums as any mother. The biggest difference, to put it bluntly, is guilt. On a day-to-day basis, I would imagine that I experience significantly less guilt about my abilities as a caregiver than my female counterparts. Are the kids alive? Yes? Then I’m doing fine. And I’m not the only one grading myself on a curve. When I go the library, when I go to the grocery store, I am greeted with beatific smiles and congratulatory nods. Behold the stay-at-home dad, savior of civilized society!
This asymmetry often means that I’m reading about the same mundane events that make up my life at the moment without sharing some of the underlying emotions. It’s an unusual experience, like reading a Wikipedia summary of a movie without ever watching the movie itself. Probably this contributed to the fact that my favorite entry in this subgenre is Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, a short book of short entries, some no longer than a sentence, whose central emotion isn’t guilt, but wonder. Staying home with my kids, in my experience, consists of long stretches of tedium and stress, punctuated by occasional moments of transcendence and general oneness of the universe. Galchen somehow resides in those moments while letting the stresses recede into the background, a trait that would make me resentful if her book weren’t so good.
Still, Galchen’s book touches on the theme of the role of caregiver being imposed on those who practice it, rather than choosing it. Nor is this ambivalence new; writers of various commitments to feminist ideals have been examining it for years, from Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen in the 1970s, all the way back to Virginia Woolf, the godmother of Domestic Ambivalence. There’s a history to this sensibility, and I never considered myself a part of it.
This is why I haven’t written about stay-at-home fatherhood until this essay. All those drafts I wrote when I first became a father had nothing to do with being a father. Even trying to write this short piece is difficult, and it’s because there are few models for how to depict these experiences.
“But Adam,” I hear you think. “What about celebrated Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard? He writes about the quotidian nature of fatherhood at great, some would say unreadable, length!” Indeed he does! I confess to you that, after multiple attempts, I simply haven’t been able to find my footing in My Struggle. I suspect it’s a structural issue. Part of what I enjoy about the Domestic Ambivalence works is their fragmentary nature. They are, almost without exception, short books made up of small parts. For me, the chamber music approach gets closer at depicting the realities of staying home with kids than Knausgaard’s opera-cycle tactic. Plus, reading about his reliance on Norway’s free, state-mandated childcare simply makes me jealous.
So where do I look for models? I’ve found one in an unusual place.
Don DeLillo is one of my favorite writers. The gnomic pronouncements on technology, the pervasive paranoia, the verbose yet affectless dialogue: I love all of it. But there’s an aspect to his work that receives less attention than the postmodern pyrotechnics, and it is that he is a poet of the domestic sphere. For all the schemata of late capitalist information networks in his work, the characters themselves are frequently confined to isolated, cramped spaces. “Men in small rooms,” goes the refrain from Libra, his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. History is made by men sitting in small rooms, waiting for the opportunity to assert themselves on the public consciousness. A number of his works feature little more than a few characters in a confined domestic setting. Great Jones Street finds rock star Bucky Wunderlick holed up in a small apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at an unplugged phone and meditating on fame. The Body Artist tracks performance artist Lauren Hartke as she wanders around her home following the death of her husband. Perhaps most germane, Mao II gives us Bill Gray, a blocked writer who sits at his desk all day, blowing his nose and accumulating drafts. Much like a parent, you could say.
This thread running through DeLillo’s work testifies to his belief that a small, single room can function as a node where one can plug into the larger forces of economics, history, and technology. Where did this computer come from? How does it change the room in which it sits, and how does it change me? These are the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind during the lulls that sometimes occur during the course of the day, when my kids are thankfully quiet for a few moments and I can let myself think. If there’s a model for how to write about the experience of a stay-at-home father, I could do worse than choosing this one.
But maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m a man performing a role that gets coded as feminine, and I might be assuaging my insecurities about occupying such a marginalized position by spinning elaborate fantasies of masculine intellect and profundity. Housewives in the 1950s had soap operas and sleeping pills; I have my college reading list.
But maybe doubting the validity of my own perspective is the quintessential problem of the stay-at-home parent, one that mothers have struggled with for ages—precisely the sort of trap that I shouldn’t fall into. Trust your instincts: good advice for writers and caregivers both.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I wrote my last Year in Reading when I was about to have a baby, and now the baby is here. In accordance with all platitudes, the year has gone by very quickly, and yet its component moments were glacial, with a glacier’s way of doing a lot while appearing to do very little. Richard Ford, whose novels I re-read just before the baby came, divided Frank Bascombe’s life into the Existence Period, the Permanent Period, and the Authentic Self. My year comprised three epochs which were, more or less, 1) Magic, 2) Bad, 3) Decisive. The Magic Period was all soft blankets and endless afternoons in the nest and long, slow walks across the city. The Bad was clumps of hair like hamsters in the bathtub, and tiny plastic pump pieces, and vanished milk, and finding myself on lunch break smoking cigarettes in a shrub. Then, perhaps as a consequence of this period, came a time for making plans. Motherhood is not unlike drugs in that it has caused me to question the arrangements of life in even its most privileged iterations. “Why should people go to a desk and sit in front a computer and write emails all day,” I would say to my husband, like a very young, very high person.
I suppose the thing that most characterized the year, apart from the presence of the baby herself, is an overall failure to modulate, some mechanism gone haywire, so that seeing someone with a bag on a seat on a crowded train made me want to scream “The bag doesn’t get a seat!” out of all proportion. When a series of administrative fuckups created a reversible but maddening problem with my maternity leave, I felt my rage could electrify a small village. I noticed the other day that a Vanity Fair I bought in an airport seven months ago is still sitting on our coffee table, because I’ve become strangely obsessed with ensuring my husband reads an article by William Langewiesche about commercial space flight. “You’ve got to read this amazing story — you’ll love it!” I keep telling him, and Robin Wright gazes serenely from the cover, asking me whether I need to talk to somebody.
How to describe a year where I felt simultaneously so powerless and so powerful — when the prospect of buying a stamp or fully participating in electoral democracy seemed insurmountably difficult, but writing a book seemed possible. Or moving to a new place. Or having another baby. When I felt so inept at the womanly art of taking care of my appearance, but so unexpectedly okay at taking caring of the baby (she is what they call an easy baby; I know it could have gone any number of ways). How strange it was to go to work and long to be with her; to long for solitude in her presence.
I know that I read a lot this year, but I can remember almost nothing, and what I remember is tied to the epochs outlined above. Like most efforts at periodization, things fall apart when you begin serious excavations. There was plenty of magic distributed through the year; it smiled in the winter and laughed in the spring and crawled in the summer and stood up in the fall. And the Magic Period, if I think about it, was actually marked by frequent crying episodes (mine, not the baby’s), like little bursts of rain against the roof. But like rain in California — and it actually did rain, those first few weeks of her life — there was something nourishing and necessary about the jags. During that period I read Mating, and whether it was the time or the book I don’t know but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever read. I loved it so much that I immediately tried to write a novel in its image, but fortunately realized, somewhere around the third paragraph, that it wasn’t a very good idea. I read Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and even though it was before my own rage came home to roost, I felt the force of her beleaguered, gimlet-eyed narrator.
As my milk dried up and the Bad Period began, I read Beloved and Preparation for the Next Life, and they were vivid and perfect, although they didn’t make me feel less blue. I read The Ghost Network, which has as its heroine a Lady Gaga figure, and because of it I listened to Lady Gaga on purpose for the very first time. There was a stretch of about a week when I couldn’t bring myself to climb the hill to my office without blasting the song “Do What U Want,” imagining myself pirouetting up the road like someone in a training montage. I mentioned how much I liked the song to a friend, who said, “It sucks that it’s R. Kelly”; I hadn’t realized that it was R. Kelly, who is known for doing what he wants with the bodies of underage women, and I understood then that verily there are no pure pleasures.
I read so many sad things this year, and felt that life itself has a failure to modulate. I read Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium,” about his daughter, and my friend Katie Coyle’s essay about hers. Sad things so generously written have a way of momentarily recalibrating the haywire apparatus, so that it registers, These are the real things — not bags on the seat, not misfired paperwork. But it’s not as if there’s comfort in the suffering of others; hugging your own family close only illuminates the supremely inequitable hazards of existence. Reading the news has, of course, been unspeakable, when every drowned child and murdered child assumes the characteristics of your own, and it feels like all there is to do is watch events unfold on a chyron, and read Facebook posts.
As I clambered toward the Decisive Period I read Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart, which is out next year and which is breathtaking. I read J.M. Ledgard’s “Terra Firma Triptych,” also breathtaking in the very particular and somewhat confounding way of J.M. Ledgard (he seems to also be a person who has reached a decisive moment, but whereas mine was, “I should quit my job and write things,” he schemes to build drone ports across rural Africa, and has evidently arranged his life thus). I read a stirring article about small-boned women and ancient cousins who bury their dead. Finally, I picked up Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, which I had once put aside after a dozen pages, and discovered that she was exactly who I needed to read: a woman writing about women, their ugliness and their ambition and their promise and their rage — their utter humanity. I ripped through the remaining volumes. You’d think a cheerful book would be the thing to pull me out of my funk, but I needed something pitiless, something about the messy arrangements of life, something about a writer trying to “imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things,” and failing up into something vital and perfectly-formed — more lifelike, somehow, than life itself.
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New this week: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy; The Infernal by Mark Doten; The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw; All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors; Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman; Making Nice by Matt Sumell; After Birth by Elisa Albert; Blue Stars by Emily Ray Tedrowe; The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan; The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi; and Find Me by Laura van den Berg. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2015 Book Preview.
It has been a fucking great year for books about women. Not just books written by women, or books with strong female characters, but books that are truly about women — books that treat womanhood as a topic as worthy of literary exploration as manhood or war or true love or any other aspect of the human condition. In so many wonderful books I read this year, women are the subject, both in the sense of topic and in the grammatical sense — the one doing the things, rather than the object being acted upon. We’ve been talking a lot about unlikable characters and “relatability,” but perhaps all these unlikeable, unrelatable women are a logical extension of a set of works where they are not relegated to sidekicks, set pieces, or romantic interests. How could they possibly only make good decisions for 400 pages?
As I wrote about Emily Gould’s Friendship in July: “This book is entirely about the inner lives and creative ambitions and life decisions of women. The men are there but they are so peripheral in the face of friendship and identity and figuring out your own choices as to turn invisible by the end of the story.”
My favorite novels this year genuinely made me think in ways I never had before about my very femaleness, which I promise you, I already think about an awful lot.
The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe might be the most under-appreciated book of the year, but I’m doing my part to never shut up about it. It’s a debut novel about a lifelong friendship that asks the most brutal questions about family, disability, abortion, responsibility, and what, if anything, we are owed or deserve. It asks us to inhabit the lived experience of people we are tempted to judge from afar, and it is somehow both deeply unsettling and a nonstop joy to read.
Another masterpiece of judgement is the forthcoming After Birth by Elisa Albert, which completely upended my understanding of natural birth advocates, the breastfeeding mafia, and the medical establishment. This work of fiction made feel wide open to the real-life possibility that everything I think I know about my body and my health is internalized patriarchal oppression. And yet? Another totally delightful reading experience.
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman is a few years old, and I came to it through the brilliant Katie Coyle’s review, which I reread at least monthly. Again it recast how I thought about my body, this time as a vessel for abuse, as an atom of the contiguous renewable resource that is American women, considered by so many men to be as much their birthright as the land, the water, the air, the livestock. Hoffman weaves threads of environmentalism, economic change, and social conservatism into a thriller where the unthinkable is inevitable, and the most extreme retribution makes an eerie perfect sense.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a story about marriage, fidelity, parenthood, accomplishment, and art, as told through scientists and philosophers, failed space travel, and poetry. It is an expansive work about life as we know it reduced so flawlessly to a sparse 177 pages that it’s hard to believe it didn’t take home every major literary prize there is. It might truly be perfect. Read it out loud to someone you love.
There are so many more I wish I could recommend here. I loved mysteries like The Secret Place and Everything I Never Told You, and even the middle grade poetry memoir Brown Girl Dreaming through this same lens. Everywhere I turned, there were female geniuses writing stories that helped me think in new ways about being a woman in the world. And I’m grateful.
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Because Ruth Curry and I are always looking for the next Emily Books pick, and are now reading unpublished manuscripts as well as published books in preparation for our plan to begin publishing a very select number of Emily Books originals, this Year in Reading was INTENSE for me. I probably read more books in 2014 than I did even in the extremely uneventful summer between 6th and 7th grade, when I read literally every book in the YA section of the White Oak public library, plus almost all the books on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Second Sex that summer because I was hoping there might be sex in it. Also The Prince, Our Bodies Ourselves, and several presidential biographies. In retrospect my parents should have sent me to summer camp.
Instead of a laundry list of the seriously hundreds of books I read this year, I thought I’d focus here on just a handful that made me excited about books again in a way I haven’t felt in years — both reading and writing them. These were books that I unequivocally loved, books that I’m certain will stay with me in the years to come.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: I first heard Mira Jacob on my friend Jaime’s podcast, The Catapult, reading a scene where narrator Amina has a tense conversation with her mom, who has a hilarious, idiosyncratic take on English usage and is just in general a maddening, overbearing/lovable mom character to add to the pantheon of all-time great mom characters. “No wonder that dirty man shot himself — all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses,” is her take on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Jacob performed the dialogue like an actress and I was immediately hooked. The book traces a deep, painful, years-long family tragedy, but Jacob balances humor and heartache deftly, and Amina is wry and sad and totally real.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: God, this book. This BOOK! Since I devoured four Sarah Waters books in a row this year, I feel qualified to judge that this book represents a new level of excellence for Waters. Since her other books are all amazing too, that’s really saying something. I had kind of expected this book to blow up Goldfinch-style; it’s a gripping page-turner in addition to being perfectly written and it’s about something important and real. I wonder whether reviewers’ understandable reticence about revealing the plot twist that changes the book halfway through from masterful historical portraiture to something more like a thriller made it a harder sell than it ought to have been? Anyway, if you like interwar London, fraught lesbian secret affairs, and hot sex scenes, plus crime, punishment, and hard moral questions that keep you thinking long after the book is over — I mean, it’s just hard to imagine anyone not loving this book. I think it’s perfect.
After Birth by Elisa Albert: This book is kind of the opposite in terms of appeal-universality — I can imagine a reasonable person hating it. But I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one (this one doesn’t actually get published til February). It’s about a malcontented woman who has a baby and moves to upstate New York, where she falls in intense friend-love with a charismatic fellow new mother. Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading.
Adam by Ariel Schrag: Ariel Schrag is one of the most talented human beings alive. Not only did she create comics that evoke high school perfectly while still in high school, she’s a screenwriter and teacher and now, the author of one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Adam is the weird, touching story of a high school senior who spends a summer with his cool older sister in NYC and uses the opportunity to try on a new identity. Schrag’s writing is sharp and stylish but also effortlessly graceful; you almost don’t notice how great her sentences are because they flow straight into your brain, situating themselves there like some better, funnier version of your own thoughts.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: I am lucky enough to know Brian a little and so after I finished this book I wrote him an email saying that I loved everything about it except was he sure about the title? At the time I felt strongly that it should have been called Opportunities For Heroism In Everyday Life, which is the title of a book by the namesake protagonist. Now I realize that I was very wrong. This book is about Florence Gordon; it couldn’t and shouldn’t pretend it’s about anything else for one second. Florence would want it that way! She’s a very forceful character: a heroic feminist activist-author who’s beloved by many readers and acolytes, but somewhat feared and even hated by her intimates and her family, whose lives have been shaped/deformed in response to her uncompromising personality. The book is about the relationship her granddaughter doggedly forges with her, a description that makes it seem like the book might be sentimental. It’s not; Florence would never allow it to be. But you will still cry. (So much!!)
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink: This funny, profane, deeply weird book defies description. The author has been writing for years but, aside from a zine, never before for publication. When an email correspondence with Jonathan Franzen turned into a friendly rivalry, she set out to prove that she can write better than he can. Can she? Well, he thinks so and to be honest I do too. (And I love J. Franz. I am a known Franz-stan.)
Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: Reasons to live: food, beautiful fall days, cats, being in the ocean and being lifted up by a perfect wave, and reading a new writer for the first time whose voice is different from any you’ve heard before and who you want to keep hearing forever.
The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe: This novel got great reviews, came our around the same time as my novel Friendship, and is also about female best friends. If the author hadn’t contacted me out of the blue via Facebook and offered to send it to me, I would have been too jealous to read it. Luckily, she did! It’s very different from Friendship — Rufi’s voice is nothing like mine, and her book’s scope is broader, in every way — but has a similar unsparing attitude, stripping away familiar pieties about love and goodness until all that’s left is the truth.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m a Sittenfeld superfan and her latest book delighted me just as much as all her others have, maybe more so in some ways. She pulls off a trick in it that, in less masterful hands, often goes awry: she creates a world just like our own but with one crucial supernatural difference (here, it’s that one of a pair of twins is psychic). I read this back to back with Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At The Wedding, another book about very dissimilar twins, and I recommend this! You can feel like you took a mini-seminar in twin lit, and they’re both fantastic books.
Notice by Heather Lewis: The hardest to read book I’ve ever read. Lewis was a phenomenal talent who died young and whose work never got the recognition it deserved. We republished this out of print book as an Emily Books ebook that includes corrections from the original manuscript, courtesy of Lewis’s literary executor Ann Rower, and a new Introduction by Dale Peck. It’s about a woman who enters an abusive relationship with an older couple whose daughter has died. I had to trap myself underground with it and ride the subway til I got to the last page, but I’m so glad I did. Ruth and I are incredibly proud that we were able to bring this book back to life.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich: Ulinich’s brilliance and wryness are up against their most formidable opponent yet: online dating. Her heroine, Lena Finkle, finds herself single in her mid-30s with two teenage kids and embarks on the kind of romantic odyssey many people get out of the way in their early-20s, when Finkle was tethered to her then-babies. She eventually falls, hard, for a total cad, and the book documents what it’s like to be in love with someone terrible with painful realness.
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