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A Year in Reading: Jedediah Britton-Purdy

At the end of 2019, I am reading with very different eyes from a year ago. My wife and I learned that she was pregnant on the last day of 2018, and our son, James, was born just before Labor Day. Two weeks after we learned of the pregnancy, we moved from North Carolina, where between us we had spent half our lives, to New York City, where we both began new jobs. New arrival sharpens vision: I paid closer attention to the details of changing seasons in Manhattan’s sui generis climate than I had in familiar places. I watched the first snowdrops bloom on the east-facing northwest shoulder of Central Park (late January), the first daffodils appear on the lower slopes of the Morningside escarpment (the end of February), and the redbud explode to announce the real beginning of an Eastern spring.

Books often bring the new for me, but this year they were more of a trace backward, stitching new experience into what underlay it. Looking at children’s books seriously for the first time in decades, I discovered images indelible in my mind but lost to conscious memory. When I opened Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (1962), with its sharp-edged collage—a red snowsuit sharply outlined against white drifts and a brown-and-yellow cityscape—I realized I had been carrying it around all my life. It might have been my first way, as a rural child who loved snowstorms, of picturing life in cities, and imagining common experiences across racial lines. I had a purple snowsuit at about the time I first encountered Snowy Day, and this year I tracked down a false memory: I had thought of the fictional snowsuit as purple, putting myself in the story and bringing it into my own mornings when hours of play turned crisp chill into soggy cold.

I also learned that, in a place as iconic as New York City, something that catches your eye may already have a literary memorial. On one of the last weekends before James’s birth, I bicycled up Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge, where a snug red lighthouse nestles under the immense gray span. In replies to my predictable Instagram post, I learned that The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (1942) is a local touchstone on the attractive theme that everyone’s work is necessary—the lighthouse thinks the bridge will make it obsolete, but is reassured that its little light still matters. Now James has that book, a gift from a friend, and I wonder whether he will notice that the tugboats and barges that occasionally ply the river still look much the same as they did 80 years ago.

I spent a part of the summer reading the Library of America’s new two-volume edition of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction. This was another backward reach: I met Berry before I could read, at a draft horse auction in Ohio, and I’ve read his agrarian essays and communitarian, anti-capitalist criticism since I could read as an adult. His ideal of an economy of caregiving, not extractive but renewing, not acquisitive but joyous and generous, has been a point of my compass. So has his version of patriotism: a burdensome, trying, mandatory struggle with your legacies of harm, as well as a special interest in your country’s chance at being “a thing decent in possibility.”  But I’ve struggled with his faith in the local and his mistrust of politics on any ambitious scale. I can’t imagine a transformation as deep as the one he wants that isn’t sharply political and doesn’t expand our sense of responsibility internationally, even if it also deepens that sense locally. Rereading him didn’t resolve any of these questions, but it took me back to finding, in him, a writer who had made a voice from materials I knew well: brushy, eroded hillsides; the bare gray trees of Appalachian winter; the way cool air comes down on a hayfield after sunset and soothes scratched arms that have been wrestling bales in the heat.

Another book helped me to reckon with my own past as a child of the late Cold War—middle-school age when the Berlin Wall fell. I had an abstract bent, and when I arrived at college, the political philosopher John Rawls was teaching what I think was the last lecture course of his long career, on the themes of his Theory of Justice, probably the most influential work in the field in the second half of the 20th century. In my earnest undergraduate way, I revered Rawls’s ambition to define a philosophical formula that could justify a social order on truly equal terms, but I also resisted a certain abstraction that made the theory hard to connect with the on-the-ground environmental justice work I had been involved with at home in West Virginia before leaving for school. Katrina Forrester’s new study of Rawls and post-World War II liberalism, In the Shadow of Justice, brilliantly maps the terrain where I was wandering, showing how Rawls’s monumental work, which defined what political philosophy was for generations, was itself a product of a very specific American moment: a time of elite consensus, economic optimism, and an ascendant philosophical method that put great stock in implicit agreement rather than pervasive conflict. That world has passed, but the thought it produced remains, and the awkward way that the one has perched on the other accounts for some of my bewilderment decades ago.

One of my favorite books of the year was another new one, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. It is a study of the landscapes of deep time, the ways that descending into caves and catacombs, underground rivers and ancient glaciers, can train us to see how very old and strange the world is beneath its surface. It is the most fully achieved work in Macfarlane’s project of finding paths to re-enchantment—new sources of wonder in a damaged world, motivations to defend it that have joy as well as fear in them.

Time is also the theme of Martin Hagglund’s This Life, which had lodged this thought in my mind: a great part of the point of progressive politics is the struggle for time—for control of it, for the freedom to face an honest reckoning with what is worth doing with our fleeting lives. Imagine Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” which famously asks, “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” and extend it to hundreds of pages of dense and passionate arguments with St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Marx, Knausgaard, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and you have a sense of Hagglund’s project.

When James was born, sleepless but lifted by the energy of falling in love with this new person, I read him Milton’s Paradise Lost. I had never been through it. It is amazing—so much richer and more vital than I had allowed myself to expect. Reading it aloud—as my wife and I did with Emily Wilson’s Odyssey when it came out—was the way to meet it. Small freaks stayed with me: Milton has the rebel angels “canceled” by God from heaven’s memory, upon landing in hell Satan sends Mammon to found a mining operation (the devil a mine boss! It would have made sense to James’s coal-miner great-grandfather), and when the angel Raphael visits Eden, Adam and Eve make him a fruit salad. But the real wonder of the work is the reminder that language really is the first special effect: The scale of the story is literally cosmic, with angels and devils tumbling across galaxies and planes of creation, and the account of the Earth’s coming into being stirred a mental montage of every episode of Nova that I watched as a child and of Planet Earth as an adult: a world swirled into being from the materials of chaos, shaped by the planetary floods of its “God moved on the waters” phase, eventually birthing herds of beasts from its soil.

Milton’s account of creation famously gave Philip Pullman the phrase, “his dark materials,” the rubric for his wildly popular YA trilogy. As early-parenthood exultation receded before exhaustion, I started looking for simpler fantasy than Milton for long nights. Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust, was almost unreadably flat and derivative. I remember weeping while staying up all night reading the original series, so the disappointment felt close to betrayal when the only storyline that held my interest was the protagonists’ recurring difficulty finding diapers for the important baby (Lyra, later the heroine of the series) in their care. I did, however, thrill to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), feeling the same wonder I always do in reading Woolf that a writer can be so incisive at every level: the cut of the observation, the perfect unsentimental sympathy of the feeling, the fine balance of the sentence. Orlando suited the moment because it is a romp, a pastiche of literature and of literary culture (any one of its set-pieces on the vanity of writers would set the standard for a decade of The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs”) that is also a brilliant, prescient treatment of gender’s fluidity and strangeness. Woolf spotted that late-Medieval romance, with its phantasmagoric scene-changing and wild unreality, was the perfect template to let a character switch from “man” to “woman” and explore the boundaries between those while imposing no obligation on the author to explain the shifts except as occasion for remarking on the strangeness of both categories.

Maybe the greatest intellectual pleasure of this year was making the belated acquaintance of Stuart Hall, the very great cultural theorist and trenchant critic of Thatcher’s neoliberalism who died in 2014. I began reading Hall’s essays in Selected Political Writings (2017), and soon found that there was no one else with whom I wanted to think about our own moment of political sadism and confusion. Hall put together “discourse,” feeling, and political economy in a single mode of seeing a social world. Of course that is what we need to do; it’s just that it is so hard to do. The best way I have found to attempt it is begin by reading your way into a transient harmony with someone who does it well. So I have read Hall for instruction, and also for the pleasure of thinking on the page.

How should we think about this terrible and confusing time? I learned a lot about how to think about American nationalism from historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth, a study of the continuities between the bloody frontier that was central to the first hundred years of American history and the southern border that has become central today. The country’s edges have always been rallying-points for chauvinism and racism, Grandin shows, and he argues that these nationalist themes have served as distractions from inequality, class conflict, and flawed democracy at home. The border becomes a mirror through which the country sees itself darkly.

Political theorist Corey Robin also gave me a new set of lenses, in this case for the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is often dismissed—in ways Robin notes are pretty racially loaded—as a lightweight right-wing hack. Robin argues that Thomas actually has a deep and tragic view of American history and the law’s place in it, which centers around the political pessimism of conservative black nationalism. Thomas doesn’t become any less disturbing in Robin’s forceful interpretation, but he becomes far more interesting and emblematic. His politics is fundamentally despairing, and much harm flows from that in his bleak view of law. But, Robin argues, this racial pessimism ironically links Thomas with much of the liberal left, which has learned to deplore the country terrible history and indefensible present injustices without developing a new politics radical enough to overcome them, so that despair feeds on itself.

This was the year that I gave belated readings to two great studies in the political economy of the present: Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007), on mass incarceration in California, and Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists (2018), on the ideology and institution-building of neoliberals after World War II. Rather in Hall’s spirit, they make good work of the impossible premise that to understand anything, you must understand everything. To see mass incarceration whole is to understand “the new Jim Crow,” of course, but it is also to understand the regulatory environment of municipal bonds, the condition of unused semi-rural land in post-industrial California, and the development strategies of local officials in the declining hinterlands. To understand the rise of global trade as the vanguard of a world in which “the market” is everywhere and irresistible, you have to understand the theories of politics, law, and government that its architects advanced, and the ways that “market fundamentalism” is not a flight from politics but a tactic for turning political energies to the politics-handcuffing goal of encasing markets from popular resistance, reform, or revolt.

A very different political economy, a weirdly enchanting one, is Bathsheba Demuth’s new Floating Coast, a history of life on the Bering Strait, a harsh place rich in energy—whale blubber, walrus oil, petroleum—and victim of the changing and clashing visions of modernization that the American and Russian empires have visited on it decade after decade. I don’t know a work that better combines love for the strangeness and specificity of a region—like Barry Lopez’s great Arctic Dreams in that sense—with a rigorous account of how world markets and programs of development have torn at and transformed it.

I had a strange year in fiction. Ordinarily I read a clutch of novels—Ferrante was my beloved for a season of eager discovery, and just before this year I binge-read Rachel Cusk—but this time I was immersed in Anthony Powell’s four-volume aircraft carrier of a series, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975). Sometimes called “the English Proust,” Powell actually did something very different in his semi-autobiographical portrait of upper-crust English life from the Edwardian era to the 1970s. One gets little sense of the narrator’s interiority—pace Proust!—except as it is refracted through thousands of pages of close social observation, worked through willfully crooked sentences and jokes that sometimes take a page to work themselves free of the drawing rooms, bars, and hotels where they are taking form. Sometimes a couple of hundred pages would be nearly unreadable, and I’d stall out for a month. Yet it portrays how age and experience change us in the most fundamental ways, by changing who we believe the people around us to be, what we love and admire, and what bores or disgusts us, even what kinds of people we suppose that there are in the world. In these ways, a schoolchild lives in a very different world from an old person, and it changes all along the way, as if the stage on which we act is set by the implicit world-making of our own minds, which we cannot really escape except by living through it. Powell never says this, but he tracks it painstakingly, so that even the limits of the work—dullness here or there, snobbishness everywhere—are folded into its achievement: a portrait of life as the slow planing of soft boards, a self-wasting absurdity that is also our only topic.

It was in that headspace that I found myself reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—looking for a sort of light Powell when I couldn’t take the denser stuff, like turning to Pullman from Milton. I didn’t know Waugh when we came across his first novel, Decline and Fall, in a tiny cache of English-language books in Greece last year, and his spare-nobody satire and perfect sentences made ideal beach reading. Brideshead is a strange book, like a religious interlude in the midst of one of Powell’s lives, as coruscating and deft as any of the satires, but walking a drunken path to some kind of mystical Catholicism. Whatever Waugh thought of this book, to me it read like the work of someone perfectly in command of his tools but overwhelmed by his themes, like a master costume-jewel whose workshop has been lifted by a tsunami.

I usually read more poetry than I did this year, but one collection got to me: Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings, which describes growing up in West Virginia, around mines and chemical plants, surrounded by people you love who are dying. There is claustrophobia here, in hollows, big families, and very small towns, but also helpless attachment, which combine in the feeling that you have to get out of the only place you will ever belong. I lent it to my father-in-law, who grew up in the “chemical valley” of the Kanawha River, son of a coal miner. He handed it back not much later. It was too much, he said, to absorb such a fine rendering of such implacable pain.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Washington, Hustvedt, Rosenwaike, Rankine, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of  Bryan Washington, Siri Hustvedt, Polly Rosenwaike, Claudia Rankine and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Look How Happy I’m Making You: “The 12 stories in Rosenwaike’s striking debut collection portray women of childbearing age confronting the challenges of becoming, or not becoming, a mother. In ‘Grow Your Eyelashes,’ a web developer admires a baby on a bus while recalling her own fruitless efforts to get pregnant. Freelance editor Cora, of ‘Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,’ has a miscarriage. In incisive language, Rosenwaike evokes the baby’s miniature hands and swollen cheeks; the cavernous, windowless institute where Leah works; and Cora writing pleasant work emails despite her throbbing uterus. Longing and anxiety pervade ‘White Carnations’ as four motherless, childless friends celebrate Mother’s Day together, and ‘June,’ in which an expectant mother feels torn between her unborn daughter and dying aunt. Self-aware humor helps baby Alice’s parents through her first Christmas/Hanukkah gathering in ‘Welcome to Your Family’ and a wakeful infant’s parents through the night in ‘Parental Fade.’ The road to parenthood is paved with denial in ‘The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy,’ resistance in ‘Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,’ and overwhelming affection in ‘Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.’ Rosenwaike’s edgy stories are endearingly honest, excruciatingly detailed, and irresistibly intimate, expertly depicting what motherhood means to millennials.”

Far Country by Franco Moretti

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Far Country: ‘Short in pages, and compressed in style,’ according to the author, this smart collection from Moretti (The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature), cofounder of the Stanford Literary Lab, takes five introductory lectures on literary history out of the classroom. His selections pair authors in unexpected ways, such as Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire, or Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, or, branching out from literature, Jans Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Moretti has a penchant for grammatical analysis, at one point counting the number of prepositional phrases (25) in a passage from Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ He observes that sentences such as ‘In his shirt the breast pockets bulged against him with his lunch and his fly book’ tell the reader what the character has already done, so that action is implied, but ‘not really visible anymore.’ This interest in the invisible or the ‘missing thing’ also gets applied to the use of repetition in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (Moretti argues that the difficulty of Stein’s language duplicates the problem of expressing one’s inner state), and to the sense of mystery Vermeer creates about what might have happened just before the scene depicted in a painting. Learned without being difficult or jargony, Moretti proves that criticism can be both thought provoking and fun.”

Horizon by Barry Lopez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Horizon: “A globe-trotting nature writer meditates on the fraught interactions between people and ecosystems in this sprawling environmentalist travelogue. Essayist Lopez (Arctic Dreams) recounts episodes from decades of his travels, most of them tied to scientific investigations: camping on the Oregon coast while considering the exploits of British explorer James Cook; examining archaeological sites in the high Arctic while reflecting on the harshness of life there; hunting for hominin fossils in Kenya while weighing human evolution; scuba-diving under an Antarctic ice shelf while observing the rich marine biota. His free-associative essays blend vivid reportage on landscapes, wildlife, and the knotty relationships among the scientists he accompanies with larger musings on natural history, environmental and climate crises, and the sins of Western imperialism in erasing indigenous cultures. It’s often hard to tell where Lopez is going with his frequent digressions: one two-page section skitters from global cancer rates past a one-eyed goshawk he once saw in Namibia to an astrophysics experiment at the South Pole to detect dark matter, with no particular conclusion. Still, his prose is so evocative—during a tempest at sea, ‘veils of storm-ripped water ballooned in the air around us’ amid ‘the high-pitched mewling of albatrosses, teetering impossibly forty feet away from us on the wind’—and his curiosity so infectious that readers will be captivated.”

Lot by Bryan Washington

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lot: “Washington debuts with a stellar collection in which he turns his gaze onto Houston, mapping the sprawl of both the city and the relationships within it, especially those between young black and brown boys. About half of the stories share a narrator, whose transition into manhood is complicated by an adulterous and absent father, a hypermasculine brother, a sister who leaves their neighborhood the first chance she gets, and a mother who learns that she and her restaurant may no longer be welcome in a gentrifying Houston. All this is on top of his grappling with the revelation that he might be attracted to men. Washington is exact and empathetic, and the character that emerges is refreshingly unapologetic about his sexuality, even as it creates rifts in his family. In general, there is a vein of queerness in these stories that runs deep and rich. Washington excels when he gets playful with his narration, like the Greek chorus of ‘Alief,’ in which the residents of an apartment complex acknowledge their role in an affair and its disastrous ending. And in the best stories, such as ‘South Congress,’ ‘Waugh,’ and ‘Elgin,’ Washington captures the dual severity and tenderness of the world for young people. Washington is a dynamic writer with a sharp eye for character, voice, and setting. This is a remarkable collection from a writer to watch.”

The Parade by Dave Eggers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Parade: “Eggers’s unremarkable latest (after The Monk of Mokha) follows two unnamed men sent to an unnamed country by an unnamed corporation to pave a road. The country—tropical, malarial—is emerging from years of civil war, and a new road running through the heart of the country is intended to be a first step by the government to unite the populace. The men charged with paving it are code-named Four and Nine. Four is a stoic company man intent on getting the job done ahead of schedule and with as little fuss as possible. Nine exists seemingly only to annoy Four; he talks incessantly, has no problem breaking company protocol—particularly when it comes to interacting with locals, which the company prohibits but he engages in endlessly—and does pretty much anything other than his job, including playing in a potentially contaminated river. As Four gets to work, Nine becomes increasingly irresponsible, and after his antics predictably get him ill and in trouble with the locals, both men end up in a precarious, possibly grave, situation. The repetitive narrative, sparse prose, and overall vagueness lend this an allegorical feel, and because the reader spends the whole book waiting for the hammer to drop, when it finally does (on the last page), it lands with more a thud than a wallop. There’s nothing particularly bad about this, but it comes across as more an exercise than a full-blooded novel.”

Waiting for Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut (translated by Regan Kramer)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Waiting for Bojangles: “Bourdeaut’s debut, an international bestseller, is a wacky, melancholy tribute by a loving young son to his charmed life in the company of his eccentric parents. In his own words, and quoting diaries his father kept—each often falling into rhyming verse—the boy recalls his unconventional upbringing. His mother is beautiful and mad, and dances her way through his childhood. His father is indulgent and kind, giving up his job when his son is born and always telling ‘such beautiful lies for love.’ The two met and married one night on a whim, and their life proceeds as a succession of parties and holidays, even after the boy’s birth. The narrator chronicles alcohol-fueled evenings, an old-fashioned turntable always playing Nina Simone’s ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ sunlit weeks in Spain after being confronted by the taxman, and so many days late to school that the boy is simply allowed to stop going altogether. Their household is chaotic, and includes an exotic squawking crane and occasionally a famous senator (whom the father worked for). But the boy’s mother teeters on the brink of insanity, and sorrows fall on her ‘from somewhere very, very high.’ When darkness threatens to overcome the intensity of light she has always thrown off, father and son go to great lengths to try to protect her. This fanciful love story, fraught with sadness, is a sweet meditation on the more unorthodox gifts that parents leave the children they cherish.”

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Memories of the Future: “This provocative, experimental novel from Hustvedt (The Blazing World) joins several narratives to illustrate the roles of memory and perspective in making sense of a life. A version of the author, called S.H. and nicknamed Minnesota by her friends for her state of origin, stumbles through her first year in New York, which begins in August, 1978. Having saved up her money and postponed graduate school, she has given herself a year to write a novel in a ‘grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building.’ Passages from that dryly humorous, meandering novel, which follows a misfit pair of teenage detectives, are interspersed with the memories of the now 61-year-old narrator, selections from her journals in 1978 and ’79, and slices of the life of ‘proto-punk’ Dada poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who serves as a sort of muse. Dominating S.H.’s memories of her year in New York is her fascination with the disturbed older woman in the next apartment, Lucy Brite, to whose rants she listens regularly with a stethoscope pressed to the wall, and for whom she becomes an unexpected savior when Lucy is assaulted. The many moods and flavors of this brash ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman’ constantly reframe and complicate the story, making for a fascinating shape-shifter of a novel.”

Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Boy: “‘I’ve always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off,’ writes the author of this wonderfully effusive autobiographical prose poem. Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, etc.), who turns 100 this year, offers a lyrical accounting of his life, both the ‘Me-me-me,’ with whom he identifies, and ‘the Other,’ who is his ‘shadow self.’ He also reflects on his private preoccupations with such broader issues as ‘ecological meltdown,’ third-world politics, and the ‘bad breath… of industrial civilization’—what he refers to as a way ‘to find the universal in the particular.’ He provides vivid memories of his tumultuous childhood, shuttled between family, orphanages, and the foster family he eventually chose for his own, and his wartime experiences as part of the D-Day invasion. Ferlinghetti’s prose pulses with the enjambments that energized the beats, whose work he published (famously, Ginsberg’s Howl), and it’s punctuated with such stunningly evocative metaphors as his recall of himself in Paris in 1948 as ‘a little like Conrad carrying Coleridge’s albatross and the albatross my past’—one of the numerous literary allusions that pepper the text. This book is a Proustian celebration of both memory and moments that will delight readers.”

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Oksana, Behave!: “Kuznetsova’s standout debut offers a fresh and funny look into the life of a bold young immigrant woman. Told in a series of long vignettes, Oksana’s story begins in her last moments in Ukraine as a young girl and traverses the U.S. from Florida to Ohio, the East Coast to the West Coast over the next 20-odd years. Along with her fiery, sexy grandmother, her gentle and brilliant father, and her nervous but loving mother, Oksana attempts to assimilate, but her efforts are thwarted by her own bad behavior. Known as ‘little idiot’ to her family, Oksana seems incapable of taking on the role of Model Immigrant. In middle school, she attempts to blackmail the principal of her school; by high school, she has an illicit relationship with her troubled track coach. And in her young adulthood, she sleeps around and relies on substances to help repress her family’s painful past. Using light humor, Kuznetsova tackles difficult themes in her sparky narrator’s life; the nuances of trauma and campus rape culture are particularly well handled. While a yearning and affection for her homeland underlie much of the novel, Oksana’s story is that of a young woman making her own place in a world both new and familiar. This accomplished and frank work is a new take on an immigrant girl’s complicated coming-of-age.”

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Island of Sea Women: “See (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) once again explores how culture survives and morphs in this story of a real-life Korean female diving collective. Young-Sook and Mi-Ja meet as young girls in 1939 in Hado, a village on the island of Jeju, where traditionally the women earn a living while their husbands care for the children and home. The two girls begin training as haenyeo, divers who harvest oysters, sea slugs, and octopi from the sea. But after WWII when American occupation of southern Korea begins, the two grow apart. While Young-Sook struggles to make ends meet for her family, Mi-Ja’s husband’s role in the government spares her the economic suffering endured by most of the country. But after Mi-Ja’s family betrays Young-Sook, Young-Sook struggles for decades to reconcile her anger with fond memories of her friend, even after their families cross paths again. Jumping between the WWII era and 2008, See perceptively depicts challenges faced by Koreans over the course of the 20th century, particularly homing in on the ways the haenyeo have struggled to maintain their way of life. Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See’s lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.”

Also on shelves: Portrait of Sebastian Khan by Aatif Rashid and The White Card by Claudia Rankine.

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