Spring Book Reviews: Part 1 of 3
The first three books in the Spring stack are not warm and fuzzy reads. They're meant to make readers feel deeply about class inequality, racism, self-identity and the pervasive nature of damaged adults begetting damaged children. Oh, and there's hope, too. All three books, one fiction, two memoirs, are equisitely written. The general theme? How these characters and authors creatively adjust to their conditions. True reconstructionaists. The books do not disappointment.
The lives of young women has always been one of my favorite novel subjects especially when its rendered without sentimentality or silliness. Pietrzyk’s unnamed protagonist sizzles underneath with fiery desires while masking her resentments by trying to fit in. The protagonist struggles with class distinction, jealousies, secrets, self-identity, and hypocrisies at a prestigious university in Chicago. Her conflicted relationship with roommate, Jess, and the sister-dramas each girl deals with form the central storyline of “Silver Girl.” Jess comes from a wealthy family—at least much wealthier than the narrator’s family where fresh milk was scarce and a rich family life non-existent. Early on, the protagonist tells us, “I had no one telling me anything.” And this is what the reader carries forward as she enters college and struggles to find her way.
Set in the early 1980s with the Tylenol murders as a backdrop to the uncertainty of the times (although it seems more innocent by comparison to mass shootings and the political chaos of today) the structure of “Silver Girl” takes the reader forwards and backwards in the lives of these characters reminiscent of a 1970s John Cassavetes’ film. If you love female friendship/sister stories "Silver Girl" is a gem!!
Favorite line(s): Sometimes I went into Jess’s room when she was gone, just looking at her things, maybe trying to understand why she was who she was and why I was who I was. As if having a Marimekko bedspread—which is what I learned was also on my freshman roommate’s bed—was an explanation. For a while, I was saving money, planning to but one for myself, but when I thought it through I understood that even if I had the comforter, I wouldn’t have the Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown for frigid nights, and if I had the nightgown I wouldn’t have the Top-Siders, and I had the Top-Siders (which, actually, I did have—three dollars at a thrift store), then I would need the Fair Isle sweater in blue, and if I had it in blue, I would need it in pink and cram and heather. . .that there was no end to wanting and needing and imagining that just one more thing would be the thing, one more sweater, one more kiss, one more boy, one more anything. That endless yearning, that empty hunger, even when I knew it wasn’t sweaters I wanted (though also, actually it was). It was to not care how many sweaters I had; it wasn’t a number, but a word: “enough.” And that word was impossible, it seemed to me.
Okay, I have to add a second favorite paragraph since I noticed in the Book Club Discussion Guide the above lines were used in one of the questions.
Second favorite line(s): I didn’t want to go to any of those places, but I was accustomed to compliance, so I locked myself in the library like everyone else. Winter quarter was the only time I got all A’s. Winter quarter was when we learned “’existential crisis” in philosophy and “major depressive disorder” in psych; when we contemplated our doughy, abject bodies taking up space in the shower and found them inadequate; when whatever we most wanted to avoid—that guy, her, no job offer, “Moby-Dick, whatever shit we hauled here from back home, the professor’s red pen and mocking gaze, a missed period—ambushed each of us from within the shadowy dark.
First, I love the title. Berries of hope spill from Mailhot’s (heart) writing in her first book, a memoir of essays about love, abuse, abandonment, and loss. As a child growing up on an Indian reservation in the Pacific Northwest, Mailhot carried with her to adulthood the traumas of a dysfunctional family and neglect from a community of damaged people. Suffering from bi-polar and PTSD, Mailhot essays explore her back and forth love affair with Casey, losing custody of her first son, being institutionalized, going back to school, and her conflicted relationships with her artist father and mother, who had “a thing for prisoners” but not her own children’s prisons. It’s not meant to be an “easy” read, but I believe for allowing the reader to see through the labels we put upon each other and ourselves. As Sherman Alexie said about Mailhot’s work, “It’s no wonder that this narrator is crazy. She’s Indian, and she’s smart. Who could survive that?” But she did and we’re the better for it.
Favorite line(s): Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see. And this one: Little ghosts don’t carry little wounds. I think our pain expands the longer we’re neglected. Another: Haunting what a mother does not see. Native women walk alone from the dances of our youth into homes they don’t know for the chance to be away. Their silhouettes walk across highways and into cars at night. They are troubled by nothing but the chance that they might have to come back someday to bury their mothers. One more: I remember that motherhood is mostly bearing shame to dress my children, to feed them, and to spare them the things I wasn’t spared.
This book opened my eyes to what it’s like to be a black man in America. Coates writes “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his 15-year-old son. Coates grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood with mean streets and suspect schools. His father would beat him because if not him than the police. Fear was and is everything underlying the black man’s world view. Fear of harm to the body from gangs, guns, drugs, parents, the police. He tells his son, Samori, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” The Dream, as Coates writes, is the white man’s world built by the enslaved. “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine….You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” It’s a small book with a powerful message on every page.
Favorite line(s): Hate gives identity. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.