Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning

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A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

I started the year by finishing Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which left me, as Anne Carson memorably put it, in “the Desert of After Proust.” I would start other novels, but nothing held my attention. Instead, I read a lot of magazine articles, worked on my own fiction, and developed a mild jigsaw puzzle addiction.

The malaise finally lifted with a streak of memoirs and novels that I later realized were all about being in your 40s, or approaching them. I’m 39, so I guess I come by my interest in this subject honestly. As I read them, I felt a little like a middle school kid reading books set in high school, hoping for some insight into what was immediately ahead.

In no particular order, these Books of Midlife were: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy; Hourglass by Dani Shapiro; Between Them by Richard Ford; Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer; Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam; The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad; Vacationland by John Hodgman; The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs; and Still Here by Lara Vapnyar, which includes the memorable piece of dialogue about the perils of age 39:
“That’s a crazy age,” he continued with the hint of a smirk. “Kind of like puberty for adults. When you’re forty, you’re branded as what you really are, no wiggle room after that—you gotta accept the facts. People do a lot of crazy shit right before they turn forty.”

Some may quibble with my list, wondering how Richard Ford’s portrait of his parents or Nina Rigg’s memoir of dying of cancer count as Books of Midlife. Another odd choice is The Weekend Effect, which is borderline self-help about how to reclaim your leisure time. All I can say is that to me, three hallmarks of getting older are 1) coming to a new understanding of your parents; 2) feeling your own mortality; and 3) wanting to make the most of your free time.

After a year of breaking news alerts, I also found myself drawn to nonfiction that helped me to put our political moment into a larger context: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks; Future Sex by Emily Witt; And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk; We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill.

Most of these books are essay collections, and most of the writing contained within them was completed well before the 2016 election. It was fascinating to see the way that many of these writers anticipated our current political situation. Their blind spots were equally interesting.

I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next year.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Julie Buntin

On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school.

My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man?

In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription.

I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry.

The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark.

The ones that were extremely sexy: Jardine Libaire’s White Fur, Jamie Quatro’s forthcoming Fire Sermon.

As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful.

There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are.

I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin.

I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi.

So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need.

Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Sexy Backs and Headless Women: A Book Cover Manifesto

1.
Before I saw the cover of my second novel, I worried about it. My greatest fear was this: A woman, looking out to sea. Her back is to the reader. Her hair is thrown up in a vague style that if nothing else can be described as “timeless.” Her stance evokes a wistful, feminine longing—for a man, perhaps, or for a dinner she doesn’t have to cook.

You know this cover. Hundreds of versions exist. There are covers that display only a woman’s head—from behind—and countless others that show a woman’s body, without the head. Sometimes, a complete woman is shown. My first novel got this treatment. Originally, it got no woman at all, just a beautiful, font-only cover. Then a “step-back” was added, one of those glossy pages that sticks out from behind the actual cover to catch the reader’s eye. The step-back showed a woman—from behind—standing in a field in a lilac-colored dress while looking off into some middle distance, and was presumably meant to assure readers that however muted (i.e. perhaps literary) the cover, the story did indeed include a woman who might, if called upon for marketing purposes, stand out on the prairie, not holding anything, not doing anything, just looking wistfully away.

In the years between that first book and the second, these sorts of covers had begun to make my heart seize. Their ubiquity might almost be laughable, if it didn’t reflect and result in serious inequities. Walk into a bookstore and see which authors receive what Eugenia Williamson, in a wonderful essay on “the implied correlation between feminine imagery and literary inferiority,” aptly terms the “Sexy Back” or “Headless Woman.” I’ll save you the work: they’re rarely men. Even when male authors write novels that include women and sex—and let’s face it, how many novels don’t?—their covers are more likely to feature large font, maybe an abstract image, perhaps a landscape. In a survey of covers by South Asian writers, Mary Anne Mohanraj notes that the books by male authors displayed “ancient paintings, people in motion, buildings or cities, large landscape features, such as bridges or mountains, abstract images, the author’s name or title, and the color blue.” Mohanraj’s own collection of stories, Bodies in Motion, was first given a cover showing the open pages of a book, but this was nixed by her marketing teams and replaced by a woman—headless, of course—in a red sari. While her critique addresses the gendering of South Asian literature in particular, the trend is global. Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, went through a similar twist: an initial cover by acclaimed designer Chip Kidd that featured a semi-abstract, red-and-blue couple in embrace was rejected in favor of a girl’s head against an aqua backdrop, viewed—yep—from behind.

The messaging is clear. These covers are code for “women’s fiction”—i.e. breezy, easy, accessible. For many women authors who don’t happen to write breezy fiction, we feel caught in a double bind, with a cover that demeans the book in the eyes of the literary establishment while also promising readers a kind of book we didn’t necessarily write. When the book doesn’t sell in a huge way—and most don’t—we’re left feeling like we lost on both fronts.

2.
The night I finally got an email with the subject line “Cover!” I was out for a drink with a friend. I glanced at the downloading image for only a second before passing my phone like a hot potato to my friend. I felt ready to fight this time, for my second novel—no woman on my cover! I winced, waiting, until my friend said, “Oh!” and showed me. I loved it right away: the bold colors, the big letters, the feeling I had looking at it that I was on the verge of something. And then I saw what I was looking at: a painting of a woman, standing on a rock by the sea. She was not facing away. She was not doing nothing. (She was reading a book.) She was neither headless nor bodiless. But she was a woman. And she was on my cover.

I was miffed, because it was what I’d known would happen, and because I loved it.

3.
A couple days later, I was looking at the cover again when I noticed something strange on the rocks next to the woman. What were they? I nosed closer. A pair of boots. Someone was lying on the rock—another woman, judging by the boots. So there was not just one woman on the cover of my book but two! And yet, despite myself, I loved it even more, because the boots made the second woman a mystery. They opened up the cover for me. They seemed to be the feet of all the characters I had created, all of them at once, lying on a rock together, listening to this other woman reading their stories to them.

4.
A while after that, my editor sent me another email: “Thought you’d like to see this.” She linked to the larger painting from which the cover had been drawn. The boots turned out to be attached to a woman in a black dress, who is looking out—though not at the viewer—with what I can only describe as a delightfully illegible expression. She might be half-asleep. She might be judging the woman reading to her. She might have to pee. She might—my favorite interpretation—be aware of the viewer and proudly ignoring us.

“Will it wrap around the book?” I asked. Because I wanted this woman, too.

5.
Once I saw the whole painting, called “Summertime Cornwall”, I wanted to know about the painter. I looked her up and learned that Laura Knight, a British artist born in 1877, managed to be both wildly popular and a pioneer: in 1936, she was the first woman elected to the Royal Academy; decades later, she was the first woman to whom the Academy gave a large retrospective. Most striking to me was the controversy Knight stirred in 1913 when she made a painting called “Self Portrait with Nude”. At the time, women artists were restricted to using casts of the human body, not live models. So when Knight’s painting was shown, depicting herself in her studio painting a sensually positioned model—her back to Knight (and us), her arms lifted to cradle her head, her hip tilted, the pale curve of one breast visible—the art world was shaken. The Royal Academy rejected the painting. The Daily Telegraph called it “vulgar.” Others embraced her challenge to the establishment. She became a sensation.

The more I look at Self Portrait with Nude, the less I focus on the model. I notice Knight herself. She is dressed in plain work clothes, another affront to custom, for women painters typically painted themselves as conventional subjects, dressed in finery. I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson talking about how she likes to write on her couch in clothes that “disappear,” how her body drops away and leaves her mind freer. Looking in this light at Knight, in her frumpy jacket and loose skirt, I see that she is asserting her right—at least for a period of time, in her own studio—to not be looked at, but to look.

6.
My publisher kept the cover for the paperback version. Laura Knight’s two women are still there, one reading her book, the other looking out with her unknowable gaze. I still love them, though I can’t explain exactly why. And I keep seeing other wonderful book covers with women on them. On the cover of Claire Dederer’s new memoir, Love and Trouble, a young Dederer stares out at us as if to say, What are you staring at? A similarly assertive woman, holding a baby, faces us on Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong. There is even a woman—albeit a very tiny, blurry one, largely overwhelmed by large blue font—on Jonathan Franzen’s last novel, Purity.

Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers.

What if we were to reclaim them, as Important Subjects? We know that they are. And we know that they are tied up inextricably in the subjects deemed important by the patriarchy: war and death and politics and business. We have written all this into our books, in fact, though perhaps with different emphasis, or in different form. My novel, for one, concerns itself with World War One, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Prohibition…and men! Straight men, gay men, men being dicks, men getting their hearts broken. Still, it’s fair to say that the most central characters are women. Why should I be ashamed of that? I’m a woman, too. If a man doesn’t want to read my book because there’s a woman on it—and my publisher hasn’t given it what Williamson calls the “man trap” treatment (really, you should read her essay)—so be it.

The painter Laura Knight was engaged in a project that sounds, like so many difficult projects do, very simple: asserting that women and our lives are of equal value to men and their lives. It sounds so simple that it’s easy for me to forget sometimes that the very fact of my working is an assertion. Last week I met a woman who had written a book arguing that women should make their children their top priority until the age of three, and blaming a plethora of childhood disorders on less-than-present mothers.

Hearing this was enough to drive me home to my kitchen table, where I sit now, writing, and where I’ll stay, writing, until I have to make dinner for my kids. Or, maybe, I’ll stay at this table until the instant I have to pick them up, and not cook at all. Mac and cheese has yet to kill anyone. But work—good work—has the power to keep us fully alive. That’s why I’m wearing worn out clothes, like Laura Knight in her self-portrait. There is always time to be seen. For now, I sit, in my version of a studio. This is what I see.

Previously: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket…”

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