Here are the books I read in June, with some thoughts on each. Mostly women authors, and a curious assortment of worlds. I’d gladly spend more time in each one, looking over facets of the fossils unearthed and the cave drawings brought to light.
The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
Kushner is among my favorite writers working today. She can take real issues and historical epochs and imagine the people in them like no one else I’ve read. She does meticulous research, but her knowledge doesn’t translate as a mere recitation of facts. Her work is dextrous and fascinating. Her most recent book, The Mars Room, is set in a women’s prison, but contains an eddy swirling with memories of growing up in San Francisco and being swept up and consumed by the criminal justice system.
In the early 2000s, Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at California’s Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. She killed her stalker in self-defense, and had a swift path to imprisonment in a courtroom unconcerned with her reality. Romy was raising her son, Jackson, in San Francisco, and working at the Mars Room. (Kushner describes it better than I can.) Her sense of place and how people occupy it captivated me – as Romy ekes out the days of her sentences, she conjures her life before. Her childhood in the city, the people she ran with, and her adult life are a gallery of indelible images.
Kushner inhabits the unknowable in history. She reminds us of all the lost worlds out there, real at some point to some people but never recorded. She renders Romy’s life in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and prison with the detail not afforded to her in court as her story was brushed aside. Kushner breaks into experiences, and this is where she shines, giving Romy this awareness: “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet. Google the Scammerz, and you’ll find nothing, no trace, but they existed.” Existence is a luxury stolen from Romy.
And this is what stays with me – Romy is in prison, utterly forgotten, cast aside with a biblical punishment, but her past is so alive. She keeps it with her. Though Romy has effectively been erased, when she closes her eyes, she still sees the outlines of herself. “All those lights stayed on, in the world that had been, and that still existed in me, the one I contained.”
Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi
Read my review here.
We Begin Our Ascent – Joe Mungo Reed
I hope I start seeing Joe Mungo Reed’s name more often, both because I like saying “Mungo” and because now that I’ve seen what he can do, I need more.
Reed’s first novel covers journeyman cyclist Sol at the Tour de France. He’s singularly devoted to being a machine, fueling and training his body for peak performance, but he plays a supporting role on his team. He is also married and recently became a father. Reed ties all these elements into a meditation on quiet ambition and what success means.
I’m not sure what exactly drew me to this book, but I was glued to it. Though it takes place at a world-famous athletic event, Reed seemingly doesn’t have a lot to work with in the monotony of tour cycling. Teams race, recover, rinse, repeat. But Reed focuses on the process of getting to the top of a sport, and each tiny action that builds into mastery. He is an engineer of plot and detail. I was in thrall to the story he built and the people he created.
I liked how Reed described the peloton as a way of being: “When one is cycling surrounded by others, one does not think of slowing, or speeding up, or stopping pedaling. One thinks only of behaving as the group dictates: leaning into corners at the same angle, pumping one’s legs at a similar rate, marking the same parabolas around alpine turns. There is not, in one sense, a single choice to be made. In another sense, however, there are many choices: the hard and unending decisions made in the service of behaving uniformly, reliably, and predictably.”
As Sol gives every day in service of his team, he and his wife are also drawn into the seedier side of racing. How far will they go to prop up a lifetime of small sacrifices? Reed sails deep into the territory of extreme but ordinary routines, the life of an athlete.
(Of note: Reed created a playlist for his book here – just in case you want to relive the team leader belting out “Livin’ on a Prayer” to his charges over the radio during a stage.)
Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood
Patricia Lockwood was born into unusual religious circumstances: her father decided to become a Catholic priest after marriage, getting special permission from the Vatican. The family moved around to different Midwest rectories, following Mr. Lockwood’s career. “Priestdaddy” concerns the time Patricia and her husband moved back in with her parents. There is much to unravel.
Despite its title, the book is also a love letter to the author’s mother, who raised five children in a space that never expected them, and conveniently does a lot of highly readable things. For example, Lockwood writes, “at some point during my childhood, [my mother] decided bellowing ‘OHHHH YEAHHHHH’ in a loud Kool-Aid Man voice was a catchphrase, and she has punctuated her speech with it ever since.” Mom Lockwood steals every scene she’s in.
Patricia Lockwood is a poet, but her prose is equally smashing. She is gut-splittingly funny about the many absurdities she grew up around, but deftly weaves in the struggles of Catholic womanhood and simply being a teenager. It knocked me down. Lockwood covers a lot of ground, but it never feels drawn-out or unnecessary. She is captivating with any material.
I’ll leave you with two of my favorite bits:
“‘I’ll tell you what the problem is,’ he says, taking on the comfortable tone of instruction. ‘When people started forgetting about gender roles, they started building ugly churches. Architecture requires an equal balance of the male and female in order to be beautiful.’ What? There’s no way that can be right. According to those standards, the perfect cathedral would be a gigantic Prince symbol people could pray inside.”
“When my father started saying the Latin Mass, he gave up the short-sleeved shirts and slacks and took to wearing a cassock, which is just a long black dress for a man that everyone refuses to call a dress. (‘It is a dress,’ I have reiterated many times, trying to open people’s eyes to the truth. ‘And the pope wears what a baby would wear to the prom.’)”
The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is a devastating portrait of poverty rendered by someone trying to see what else is out there. Jeannette Walls grew up in an itinerant family, one of four children. Her father was a long-standing alcoholic who would leave for unspecified amounts of time, and her mother lived in her own cocoon of paintings and novels. They moved every time her father lost a job, which was usually in a violently dramatic manner. Walls spools out her father’s thought process – that he was an exceptional inventor just one imminent discovery away from greatness – and much of the book is essentially from his point of view. If his daughter loves him, wouldn’t she understand?
As Walls gets older, she notices that not everyone conforms to her parents’ worldview. She struggles to reconcile her love for them with the desire to fit into the spaces outside their house. About her first foray into journalism, Walls writes, “I’d never known what was going on in the world, except for the skewed version of events we got from Mom and Dad – one in which every politician was a crook, every cop was a thug, and every criminal had been framed. I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.” Walls faces considerable obstacles in gaining a foothold in society, and it’s both painful and fascinating to see how she navigates crossing over from her parents’ realm to the world at large. While she cannot fully let go of her father’s ethos, she plants her feet firmly in independence. But she carries shards of that old existence with her, and they puncture her writing with an all-encompassing sympathy for those living outside the margins.
I read this in a slipstream from Tara Westover’s Educated – throughout, I couldn’t help compare her experience and reflection with Walls’s. While they were born into vastly different lives, they both grew up in fringe households with domineering fathers. These figures wove for them a needle-specific view of the world, one which they first accepted and lived by, and then gradually reckoned with. That reckoning is harrowing, but ultimately liberating. I would recommend reading both books in succession.