In August of this year, my president, Barack Hussein Obama, wrote:
We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs. We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women…And yes, it’s important that [Sasha and Malia’s] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men. (Glamour, August 4, 2016)
This year my Year in Reading selections are themed: fathers and daughters. The topic is close to home: the father-daughter relationships in both my novels — Long for This World and The Loved Ones — are central.
Not all the following fictional father-daughter bonds are as beautiful or evolved as the first family’s, but they are all complex and memorable. These fathers and daughters are flawed, some painfully so, yet there is an honesty and a messy striving in these depictions that I find compelling.
The 1955 novella Bonjour Tristesse — a delicious, devastating anti-coming-of-age tale written by Françoise Sagan when she was 17 years old — tops my list. Cécile (also 17), her father, and his mistress du jour take a villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. In her own words, Cécile’s father Raymond, a 40 year-old widower, is
a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me.
Father and daughter are similarly flawed — self-centered, hedonistic, driven too much and too often by a need for “physical charms” at the expense of intelligence or moral depth. Thus Cécile “cannot imagine a better or more amusing companion.” American readers in particular — now as then — will judge Raymond harshly, as indulgent and inappropriate and oblivious to fatherly responsibility. For these very reasons, I confess I find Raymond, Cécile’s relationship with him, and the narrative perspective on both (Cécile’s retrospective but not fully illuminated first-person point-of-view) not just refreshing, but persuasive. In an era of helicopter parenting and an oppressive parenting industry, the absence of all that striving by this duo to be anything but themselves means an implicit bond/trust between them that one can’t help but give its due: it’s them against the world. Both do behave badly, and others suffer seriously as a result. The brilliance of the novel, I think, is its power to reflect back to the reader how much you care about the damage the pair causes versus the assertion of their essential selves. Diane Johnson, in her introduction, implies that the reader unequivocally does, is meant to, read through the narrator — assess her failures from a wiser, morally superior vantage point — and internalize a cautionary tale of weakness of soul. I’m not so sure, myself; ambiguity teems in the subtext, and as far as I’m concerned, herein lies the elegant technical achievement of a prodigy’s debut — the first of Sagan’s 30 novels to come.
Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel, Home Field, shows us just how tragic the unbridgeable gap between a father and daughter can be, when connection is desperately needed and the disconnect no one’s fault. Under the best of circumstances, Dean and his teenage daughter, Stephanie, would fail to connect: he is the high school football coach, a hero in a small town and wholly absorbed in his devotion to his players, while Stephanie doesn’t much care for the sport at all. When Dean’s wife/Stephanie’s mother, Nicole, commits suicide, all bets are off as each family member is sent reeling into remote grief. Stephanie goes off to her freshman year in college, which lets Dean off the hook, sort of. In the short-term he reaches for another woman, as well as a kind of unconscious replacement for Stephanie in his niece. Then, when Stephanie suffers a bad acid trip while at school, and he isn’t home to receive the emergency call from Stephanie’s roommate, Dean’s uselessness comes into stark relief. Gersen doesn’t tidy any of this up easily. Her novel has been compared to the TV series Friday Night Lights, but whereas the show — of which I am a huge fan — leans YA in its goodness-prevails outlook, Home Field allows characters to scatter and come together more quietly: the violent loss hits each family member uniquely, and in the end it’s mere proximity and watchfulness that they can offer one another: “Dean got a glimpse of what [Stephanie] would look like when she was older, and for the first time he could picture her in the world, the adult world.”
In Rion Amilcar Scott’s “202 Checkmates,” my favorite story from his powerful debut collection, Insurrections, a 12 year-old girl and her downtrodden father find absorption and shared passion in the game of chess: “We both hunched over the board. There was no world outside the both of us, outside of this game.” The layering of a coming-of-age, working-class, black family struggle, and the complicated, aching need children have to both admire and conquer their parents is beautifully done here. The mother character is somehow both backgrounded and heartbreakingly blaring as she whisper-harangues her husband for encouraging their daughter toward chess instead of schoolwork, and for spending money on a marble chess set when he is chronically underemployed. Father and daughter reach together toward something beyond mere survival — toward mental vitality and mastery and delight. The tension that builds toward the story’s end anticipates the reader’s conflicting investments perfectly, and the resolution satisfies just as well.
One stunning father-daughter portrayal this year came not through a book but across my screen, via French maîtresse-filmmaker Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum. Here — as in her wonderful earlier film U.S. Go Home, which focuses on a brother-sister relationship — Denis explores her interest in the romantic shades of familial love. Lionel — a widowed métro train driver and West African migrant — and his daughter, Josephine — a university student in anthropology whose mother was German — might be seen as a working-class version of Sagan’s Raymond and Céline: they have a special intimacy, it’s them against the world, and they’re each fearful of imagining life without the other. Unlike their privileged, indulgent counterparts, however, Lionel and Josephine see that they must try harder to connect with humanity, and their own hearts’ desires, beyond the safety of their love. Denis — a master of complex emotional layers in the guise of simple stories — seems to laud that effort while simultaneously rendering its emotional cost and the uncertainty of its result.
Re: Daniel Paisner’s A Single Happened Thing, published this past spring, I’d like first to set the record straight: despite its cover art and the characters’ extreme passion for the sport, it is not “a baseball novel.” Not solely or primarily, anyway. (Paisner and I share a publisher, which is how I came to read the book, and I’m thankful, since, given its basebally veneer, it may otherwise have passed me by.) Rather A Single Happened Thing is a poignant and whimsical story about a man, David Felb, stalled at middle age, who anxiously doubts then gives himself over to the possibility of a fantastical visitation upon his unremarkable life. The central question Paisner asks via Felb’s story is, What happens when you are carried into a nether realm of anything-goes, and your loved ones are not willing to come along with you? In David Felb’s case, it is his wife, Nellie, who becomes wary of him; but his daughter, 15 year-old Iona, hitches her heart to her father’s leap of faith. Paisner’s novel walks the sad, beautiful line that children walk when they love both parents and know that “sides” are forming; it also allows us to feel for Nellie all that Felb himself feels — love, longing, disappointment. Iona’s evolving originality and girl-power intelligence leap off the page, reminding us that parents often pour the best of their own remarkableness into their children; and that ain’t nothin.
Plus, if the same happens also to apply to Sasha and Malia Obama vis-à-vis their parents’ best, then look out, world: we absolutely do have hope for the future.
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Welcome to what we hope will be a new (semi-regular!) feature, in which the Millions fam opens up about the books on our nightstands (and desks, and floors – seriously these things are like kudzu). As you might expect, it’s an eclectic mix about which we have ~strong feelings~.
From haikus to a macroeconomic treatise on American industrialism – with lots of novels and story collections in between, of course – here’s what we’re reading:
Jacob Lambert: I just finished Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush, and hated it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. What a pretentious disaster. Up next is Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, which hopefully won’t make me want to stick my head in the oven.
Tess Malone: I haven’t read one book by a straight white man this year, but I’m breaking the streak for Rob Delaney’s memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.
Edan Lepucki: I recently finished The Barbarous Coast by pulp L.A. Noir writer Ross MacDonald and I am #blessed to be an early reader of Susan Straight’s new novel (!!!)…editors can email me if they want deets on that masterpiece.
Sonya Chung: A little past halfway through Jung Yun’s Shelter [Ed. note: which was selected by our own Edan Lepucki as one of her most anticipated books of this year], I had to put to down. It’s an important book, and I’m sad that it had to be written, and Yun writes skillfully and unflinchingly. All that. But, it’s a hard story, and I needed a break. Will return to it surely.
I am on to Mat Johnson’s Pym and Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife for the long weekend. Yes, I started two novels simultaneously. Both take place in academic communities but could not be more different from each other; so somehow, it works to alternate between them.
I also always have a book of essays going on the side. Currently, John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket. (Film Forum has a documentary about Berger playing now; don’t miss it, New Yorkers! The final scene is priceless.)
Bill Morris: At the moment I’m reading two books that could not be more unalike, but which are fabulous in their own ways: James McBride’s exploration of James Brown’s life and its meaning, Kill ‘Em and Leave; and Robert J. Gordon’s work of macroeconomics, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which examines the astonishing burst of changes in everyday life from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
Anne Yoder: Unbeknownst to me ’til now, my to-read pile is afflicted by planetary influence. I’m currently reading Kyle Coma-Thompson’s Night in the Sun – its story “27-B” contains an appallingly beautiful description of death at 30,000 feet, the stewardess holding the body back upon landing and yet: “The head moving in the most grotesque way, a sodden sunflower crown wagging on its rigid tough stem.”
Nick Moran: I was in Florida this weekend, so I’ve been revisiting Jai Alai Books’s essential poetry collections, Eight Miami Poets and Suicide by Jaguar. Amidst Miami’s Zika outbreak, I’ve developed a fresh appreciation for Dave Landsberger’s South Beach Haiku #3: “My legs fit perfectly in my pants. / My leg bones fit perfectly in my legs— / shorts are for tourists.”
Dear Mr. M has an elegant structure that weaves together many strands, but one is about man named Herman who moves into the apartment below and stalks a famous writer, Mr. M. After spying, opening his mail, talking to his wife and kid, Herman finally approaches Mr. M under the guise of being a journalist wanting an interview.
I just interviewed Koch. In my emails, I addressed Koch as “Dear Mr. K” and signed off as “Herman.” I don’t know if he finds it funny or creepy, but no cease and desist order yet.
Hannah Gersen: the book on my nightstand that I have slowly been working through is Consolations by David Whyte, which is a beautiful book that gives definitions for everyday words, elaborating on their spiritual and philosophical meanings. It starts with the word “alone” and ends with “work.” It’s a quiet, thoughtful book, a really good way to start or end the day.
Kirstin Butler: I’ve been on both an essay- and thriller-reading tear lately, probably because those are the two things i’m working on myself ! In the former category I’ve gone for contemporary classics – John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land – with one old standby mixed in, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World. I will read anything McPhee you put in front of me. As for the latter genre, I’ve discovered I’m a pretty tough customer; I was excited to read The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich (nom de plume for the writing team of Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment), but after one too many times of yelling ‘oh my god don’t fall for it’ at the heroine, had to give it up. If any readers have good thriller recs please get @ me on Twitter!
Nicholas Ripatrazone: I’m currently reading Ghostland by Colin Dickey, due out 10/4. It’s a creepy, smart trek through America’s haunted sites. He investigates how “ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way.”
Oh and by the way: What you’re reading right now looks pretty awesome too.
(Image via Alie Edwards)
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]