A midday note to my Magpies: My blog was down this morning for a few hours; I apologize if you were throttled or served an error message. Now that I seem to have resolved the issue, I wanted to say that — wow. Yesterday was not an auspicious start to the new year. Does it occasionally feel that we are just waiting on that fourth horseman? I was also reminded this morning of some of the comments on this post about hitting the reset button in the face of frustration, hurt, anger, etc. My personal ambition in times of darkness is to angle for light, and so I will continue to share as much positivity as I can here. If you need a palate cleanser, the roundup of books below might be just the ticket. That said, some of them are serious drags…! You might want to skip Shuggie at the moment…
Hang in there, friends.
P.S. Today only, Zora Neale Hurston’s exceptional Their Eyes Were Watching God is available for free audiobook download via Libro.FM! This book is absolutely gorgeously written and I can’t wait to experience in audio. Details here.
One of my goals for 2021 is to be more intentional about carving out time to read, and one thing that is helping me get in the mode is a very full and very exciting tsundoku pile.
Below, my top reading picks for the start of 2021:
+For spirit-boosting, feel-good fiction: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. This book is earning a lot of press right now and I was surprised to see how many Magpies were reading this when I performed an informal poll on Instagram. The book is an engagement with the choices we make in our lives and the alterities that could have been. In the words of the book jacket: “Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life.”
+For an intimate portrait of grief and marriage based on the life of Shakespeare: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. A fictionalization of the life of Shakespeare focusing specifically on his marriage to an eccentric falconer named Agnes and their grief over the sudden death of his young son. I had several Magpies positively rave about this book.
+For a difficult but exceptionally well-written story of childhood trauma in 1980s Scotland: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was the first book I completed this year, and — despite its considerable length — I devoured it in a few days. The writing is excellent and the narrative darkly compelling. It is the haunting, deeply sad story of a tender-hearted boy coping with poverty, his own sexuality, abandonment, a mother who is struggling with alcoholism, and all manners of violence and cruelty as he grows up in the public housing of 1980s Scotland. It is bleak, difficult reading — I had to take breaks to quiet the heartburn and voyeuristic agony — and yet I could not stop reaching for it, and it has not left my mind (or heart) since I finished. Reading was like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion. The specificity and brutality of the injuries, embarrassments, and heartaches that befall young Shuggie are painful to endure as a reader, especially knowing that the author’s own background is similar to Shuggie’s — Stuart, too, lost his mother to alcoholism at a young age and grew up in working-class Scotland in the 80s. It is difficult not to wonder which of the horrific events of the stories happened to the author himself. What struck me as most moving and masterful was the generous way in which Stuart paints the mother, Agnes, as a woman who suffers terrible violence, hurt, and harm and then also endures the horrific burden of addiction and yet still attempts to carry her head high and show her sons the most love she can. The scene in which she sets fire to her home and yet survives is a rich invocation of her namesake, Saint Agnes, who was burned at the stake but did not die from the flames — and her devolution into alcoholism follows a similar pattern in which she appears continuously consumed. Meanwhile, Shuggie’s tenderness and devotion to his mother is as heart-wrenching as the author’s humane portrait of her (suggestive of a personal reckoning with his own mother): he skips school to care for her, tenderly removes her stockings and dentures when she has passed out after too much drinking, and eternally hopes for her recovery. He is a child forced to mature too quickly, and he bears the full force of the judgment and castigation of his community, both for the “sins” of his mother, the abandonment of his family by his father, and his own burgeoning homosexuality. Shuggie is an exile, an outsider, in every sense of the word, alienated even from his own siblings and isolated from his mother by virtue of her addiction. From a craft standpoint, there are segments of the book describing the decrepitude and stagnation of 1980s Glasgow that were nearly Joyceian in their poetic yet realistic representation of place and self and the relationships between, and the invocation of the physical in the book is unbelievably rich. There are scenes of hair pulled from heads, skin split open, legs bruised that are so clearly described they made my stomach turn. And there are visions of the sooty, tar-covered mine fields of Glasgow, and the squat and desolate housing schemes in which its residents live close by, that are so vividly painted, I nearly feel I’ve been there before. All in all, an incredible, albeit disturbing, achievement that left me in a fog.
+For a tender coming-of-age story: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. This is Brunt’s debut novel, and it has been earning considerable acclaim. In it, Brunt tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl who loses her eccentric uncle, the only person who she feels understands her.
+For a creepy marital thriller: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Described as “a mix of Hitchcockian suspense, Agatha Christie plotting, and Greek tragedy” in which a well-to-do wife shoots her husband and refuses to speak about why she has done so, transforming the tragedy into a mystery that captures the attention of their community. My cousin — who shares similar tastes in thrillers (Ware, La Pena!) loved this one.
+For a suspense focused on class, family, and race: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. A few Magpies raved about this one, too! In it, “two families, strangers to each other, are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong.”
+For a moving love story between mother and daughter: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (to be released on Jan 26). Described as a love story between mother and daughter, this novel earned the Booker Prize (just like Shuggie Bain) in 2020. The book jacket is compelling: “In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with her young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.”
What else are you reading? What else would you suggest?
P.S. Gifts for book lovers — including some fun finds for yourself.
P.P.S. Trending books for children.
P.P.P.S. My favorite audiobooks!