Book Review

Ten Crushes

In early October, a treasure chest landed on my porch—fifteen books, complete with new-book smell. The editors of The Hudson Review asked that I review at least five. While fall swept across central Virginia, and crows and pileated woodpeckers vied for the bright-red seeds in the magnolias, I reveled in novels and collections.

You Have Reached Your Destination: Stories by Louise Marburg was an irresistible first choice.[1] I’d read “Love Is Not Enough” in the pages of this journal and loved the jolts in it. The 12-year-old narrator visits her beloved older sister, Jeannie, whose new boyfriend turns out to be a creep. Yet lovestruck elder sis defends him, and worse. The book showcases Marburg’s genius for rapid setups. Within the first few sentences of each story, the protagonists, all female and generally the progeny of abusive mothers, become enmeshed in sticky, consequential situations. Themes of betrayal, shifting identities, and mother/daughter conflict unite the collection. Men tend to be either prizes or minor players in women’s wars. The 37-year-old Penelope in “Alouette” lies about her age to her fertility doctor and turns to a psychic to bolster her fading hopes. In “The Weather of Menopause,” middle-aged artist Katrina “used to be so lovely that people stared at her, but middle age had sucked the female from her face and fattened her hips and breasts, so she resembled an effeminate man with a Mae West body, her uncle and mother combined.” When her talented assistant asks her opinion of his paintings, she must reckon with her lacerating envy. In “Dance, Rockette,” one of my favorites, a woman named Eve endures a hostile dinner party at the home of rich friends.

“I came late to motherhood,” she said. “I was thirty-eight when I had my first.”
Pete looked at her over the top of his eyeglasses. “You must have done something before coming late to motherhood.”
Eve paused. I really can’t stand you, she thought. “I was a Rockette,” she said.

It’s a lie. The women in these stories often lie, out of fear or other emotions. “Dance, Rockette” explores what it’s like to encounter aggression in a person you have just met. This story made me recall something my mother used to say, which was, “Rudeness is always shocking.” Dangerous strangers are a theme in this book, which is both comical and wryly profound.
Colors abound in The Color Line, by the novelist and memoirist Igiaba Scego, the recipient of the 2021 Viareggio-Versilia International Award.[2] The Italian edition of The Color Line has already won the Premio Napoli. A historical saga and a whopper of a book, its 500-plus pages conclude with a chapter entitled “Us in Stone,” which features images of actual sites germane to the fictitious protagonist’s travels across Italy. I turned again and again to Rino Bianchi’s haunting photographs of the Four Moors Fountain, a sculpture of slaves chained to a marble column. The novel begins in 1887. Lafanu Brown, a 45-year-old American portrait artist of Chippewa and Haitian descent, is living in Rome and charmed by its beauty and antiquity. Without warning, she is publicly assaulted. The reason seems to be her race: the attackers are enraged because, far away in Africa, Italian soldiers have been massacred by Ethiopians. The violence echoes Lafanu’s experience as a 17-year-old college student in the U.S.; she was raped by multiple assailants. For the portrayal of Brown, Scego draws upon true events in the lives of sculptor Edmonia Lewis and feminist Sarah Parker Remond, nineteenth-century Black women who emigrated from America to Rome, fleeing racism in favor of a more cosmopolitan society. Lafanu stays in Rome after the assault and commits herself to art and the pursuit of romance. Meanwhile, a twenty-first-century narrative is introduced, like a counter-melody, exploring Lafanu Brown’s legacy and the perils faced by contemporary Black women. A successful Rome-based art curator named Leila, an Italian woman of Somali descent, decides, “It’s such a shame that no one knows about Lafanu” and sets about arranging an exhibit of works by the now-deceased Brown. However, Leila finds it hard to focus on her new project because, back in Africa, her 20-year-old cousin Binti has vowed to escape from Somalia. Leila is frantic when the girl sets out to cross a desert rife with traffickers. Leila embodies aspects of both Binti and Lafanu: she understands the village girl as well as the artist. Ultimately, the modern story line, with its riveting immediacy, engaged me more than the later Lafanu material, but Binti’s suffering resonates all the more because of Lafanu’s. Like history itself, the novel is a hall of mirrors.
Molly, a debut novel by Kevin Honold, won the Autumn House Fiction Prize.[3] The judges and editors were surely mesmerized, as I was, by the meditative beauty of the narrative voice, which reminds me of the work of Kent Haruf and Marilynne Robinson. Nine-year-old Raymond lives in rural New Mexico, first with his uncle and then, after his uncle dies fighting a fire, with his uncle’s girlfriend, Molly, who fills the role of unofficial guardian with quirky grace. Uneducated and reticent, she nicknames the boy “Ray Moon.” They share a love of the Western landscapes and a passionate curiosity about history, animals, and myth. Desperately poor—a can of Spam is a luxury—they find entertainment in the natural world. Sometimes while walking in the vast desert that surrounds them, they become separated, and Ray’s solo adventures veer into the supernatural. Yet Molly is a constant in his life, and their beat-up trailer a refuge, until she is trapped into a ghastly relationship with a sheriff. This man’s evil sizzles off the page. Ray narrates the story as an adult, looking back. The childhood Ray encourages Molly, a gifted artist, to sell her drawings of birds. When she makes $3, “She skipped and sang and hugged me twice, and we bought strawberry ices at a stand and had enough left over for a can of Treet and a sack of tortillas, a jar of peanut butter and a Zigzag bar that we ate on the hoof.” The understated narration dramatizes Ray and Molly’s struggles, which are at once humble and epic. I became deeply attached to Ray and Molly and enthralled by the seasoned, somber writing.
The Sorcerer of Pyongyang, a novel by Marcel Theroux, explores life in authoritarian North Korea in the 1990s—stifling at best, and often lethal.[4] Famine is raging, and the impoverished citizens are starving to death, yet no one dares criticize the Dear Leader. Any show of individuality carries risk. Ten-year-old Cho Jun-su, a gentle village boy, accepts the limitations and privations as normal until he chances upon a Dungeons & Dragons handbook. It inflames his imagination, but he realizes the game must be played in secret. As he matures, he falls in love with Su-ok, a young woman of the elite class. At first, I found the characters stiff and superficial, if only because of the rigidity of the culture, but the story rapidly gains momentum, and the stakes ratchet up to life and death. Cho Jun-su is swept into an uneasy friendship with the Dear Leader’s vacuous, corrupt, drug-addled brother. Hiding his eagerness to escape, Cho Jun-su is pressed into service for his skills in “fiction and statistics,” meaning he must defraud foreign insurance agencies. The profits enrich the Dear Leader and his greedy, super-wealthy inner circle. When Cho Jun-su visits his home village after a long absence, he finds it reconfigured to the Dear Leader’s design:

In the distance, the strange ziggurats of new hotels under construction were visible on the waterfront. They were being built to house the hordes of foreign tourists that the government wanted to draw to Wonsan as another source of foreign money.

The novel gave me the sense of peering into the secretive, claustrophobic world of North Korea, and I cheered for Cho Jun-su, a resourceful underdog whose chief weapon against his inexorable foes is his creativity. One of Theroux’s previous novels, Far North, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Young, innocent Palestinians give buoyancy to Mother of Strangers by Suad Amiry, a captivating novel about love amid warfare.[5] Set in Jaffa, an old Mediterranean port known for its fragrant orange groves and its cosmopolitan population—thus the city’s nickname and the book’s title—the novel was inspired, astonishingly, by the author’s chance meeting with a cabdriver who divulged his family history. Fifteen-year-old Subhi, a Muslim, is poor, but he is a talented mechanic. A wealthy merchant hires him for a difficult job and rewards him with a tailor-made suit. As Subhi shows off his new outfit, readers are treated to a tour of the coffee shops, bars, markets, and waterfront of late 1940s Jaffa, when the ancient Arab city was Palestine’s commercial hub. Subhi believes he now has a chance to bedazzle Shams, a beautiful 13-year-old girl he envisions as his future wife. Meanwhile, old Middle Eastern conflicts rekindle. A UN partition plan has set out terms for a separation between Israel and Palestine, with British forces as peacekeepers. However, in November 1947, Israeli soldiers invade Jaffa and brutally evict, arrest, and kill the terrified Arabs. Subhi and Shams are separated and their families torn apart, but their yearning remains. Their quest to reunite despite destruction and chaos propels a story as sobering as it is entertaining. The Author’s Note reveals that the character of Shams is based on the real-life grandmother of a man who happened to give the writer a ride in his taxi. Readers are lucky they connected. An architect and the author of six works of nonfiction, Suad Amiry lives in Ramallah. She has won the Viareggio-Versilia International Prize and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Just before Election Day 2022, I read the stylish, ultra-contemporary Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet, which includes passages about those very elections, the crucial midterms.[6] Author of twelve previous novels, Millet has won prizes from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and PEN Center USA. Love in Infant Monkeys, one of her two collections, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This new novel focuses on Gil, a mild-mannered heir to a massive trust fund, recently abandoned by an emotionally sadistic girlfriend, who had a “strict policy of not apologizing after harsh words said in anger—at least, until he’d walked around for hours or days carrying a heavy rock of misery. He never said those harsh words. Only she did. And she was convinced of her own infallibility.” Heartbroken, Gil relocates from New York to Arizona, walking every step of the way for the sake of the challenge. His new neighbors live in a glass-walled house—a married couple, their teenaged daughter, and their lonely ten-year-old son, Tom, whom Gil befriends. Wanting to use his time wisely, yet having no need for extra income, Gil volunteers at a women’s shelter, where the impoverished residents’ vulnerability is balanced by their desire to survive. Among his co-workers is an ardent birdwatcher named Jason. Gil himself loves birds and is deeply disturbed when dead and dying quail and roadrunners start showing up in his glamorous neighborhood. Gil vows to solve the troubling mystery. The members of his wealthy community lead lives of luxury, but individual agendas and desires threaten the peace. Gil becomes caught up in their conflicts and in the environmental issues that give the book its larger reach. Gil tends to be passive. I wanted to shake him into feeling some seismic emotion, and I kept wondering why he had tolerated his awful girlfriend for so long. Still, the story moves with the sleek rapidity of a hawk in flight, and the veteran writer brings it in for a satisfying landing.
Talk about contrast. The next novel came at me like an uppercut. In 1955 in rural Texas, a Black 16-year-old victim of rape and incest tries to self-abort in an outhouse: this is the opening scene of Perish, a knockout debut by LaToya Watkins.[7] Teenaged Helen Jean makes a decision that seems logical at the time—to marry a man she does not love—and although he treats her kindly and looks after their growing family, she proves to be a negligent, cruel mother and grandmother. Dubbed “Grandmoan,” a euphonious name that is oddly fitting, the widowed Helen Jean is now middle-aged and dying. Her children, grandchildren, and devoted current husband gather at her bedside. Secrets spill out, betrayals are aired, and explosive truths come to light. The brutal dynamics include four generations of men raping their family members. Chapters focus by turn on tempestuous daughter Julie B.; her daughter Jan, who wants Grandmoan’s money and a better life for her own children; Lydia, an educated granddaughter whose miscarriages imperil her marriage; and grandson Alex, a police officer who has committed terrible crimes. At the center is Helen Jean: “Family was family. To her knowledge, nobody had ever found a way around that. She’d grown up with Bacon—with all of her brothers . . . She never learned to see monsters in any of them.” I was reminded of Blaise Pascal’s remark: “The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.” Perish takes one of the greatest subjects—the irrationality of love—and makes both opera and prizefight.
My elementary school librarian warned against dog-earing the pages of books: “Little fairies live inside, and you might break a little arm or leg.” Yet I could not stop dog-earing The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li, a fable-like novel about childhood friendship.[8] It is 1953 in rural France, and the narrator, 13-year-old farm girl Agnès Moreau, fervently obeys the whims of her chum, the dark-minded Fabienne. “We had each other, and for a long time that was enough,” Agnès recalls years later. Fabienne invents stories about dead children, and Agnès writes them down. The manuscript finds its way to editors in Paris and is published under Agnès’ name, as Fabienne intends. Hailed as a prodigy and burdened by the lie, Agnès is installed at an exclusive girls’ school in England, where the students are “cultivated to bloom” under the tutelage of a frightening headmistress. Yet Agnès remains dedicated to Fabienne, who is back in their village in France. Their correspondence is augmented by letters from a person Fabienne invents—Jacques, her nonexistent brother. Although Agnès knows Jacques is not real, she falls for him.

. . . because he was Fabienne, and yet he was not Fabienne.
“Why did you love him when you could’ve loved me?” she said. “What does he have that I don’t, other than he’s a boy and I’m a girl?”
But I had loved her all my life. I had loved her before we knew what the world was, what love was, and who we ourselves were. But all these things I could not say.

Agnès’ wise, naïve voice is an ideal vehicle for this tale of dualities. At times I hated Fabienne, who is as cruel as she is brilliant. The climax of the book is astonishing. The author of a memoir and six previous works of fiction, Li has received a MacArthur Fellowship and the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Vasily Grossman (1905–1964) was a Ukrainian journalist in June 1941, when German troops invaded the Soviet Union. Ukraine was part of the USSR. Overweight and lame, Grossman volunteered for combat but was assigned to write for Red Star, the Red Army’s newspaper. His editor permitted him two months’ leave to write fiction. The result was The People Immortal, the first Soviet novel about World War II, published in serial form in 1942 and now translated into English.[9] One of the most dreaded conditions of warfare is encirclement. That is the situation faced by a starving Soviet battalion. Surrounded and outnumbered by well-equipped German troops, the men know they are probably doomed, yet they thrill to the majesty of their own Ukrainian countryside:

The forest was tall, black and motionless, as if cast in a single mould; the leaves of the oaks were not even rustling. Now and then, the men came to open clearings where the starry sky—so black as to be almost blue—would spill over their heads. Sometimes they were startled by clear, swift, shooting stars.

While I read, the present-day Russian invasion of Ukraine was foremost in my thoughts, and I had to keep reminding myself that those nations were united during WWII. Yet this passage could apply to Ukraine today:

Wells whose cool greenish-blue depths had been poisoned, moonlit haystacks, apple orchards, white walls now splattered with the blood of people who had been shot, the paths and tracks, the wind sighing through cables, the deserted nests of storks, the melon plantations, the russet buckwheat—all this wonderful world of Ukraine was now blood-soaked, salted by tears and heavy with the bodies of the dead.

One momentous day, a scrappy soldier named Ignatiev manages to obtain bread, make fresh berry juice for the wounded, and capture “a tongue”—a German who can be forced to talk. The writing is tensile and evocative. A scene of besieged soldiers singing in the forest has stayed with me; I can still hear their voices.
My husband and I were vacationing in Virginia Beach, and I had just started A Blind Corner by O. Henry Prize winner Caitlin Macy, when the hotel’s fire alarm went off.[10] I liked the collection so much that I grabbed it as I fled. Luckily, false alarm. Out on the boardwalk, the wind was freezing cold. I bought fudge at a little shop where the clerk said, “You’re my first paying customer all day.” I returned to my room and the book. Macy’s use of social data and hierarchies is dynamite. In “One of Us,” a woman named Frances and her husband, newcomers in a small town, attend a party.

They would never belong anywhere, she and Ted. Like sinners in some summer-colony religion, they seemed predestined never to belong, as if there were something about them that had branded them with outsider status for the rest of their lives.

The party darkens to outright vulgarity, yet Frances ingratiates herself, jeopardizing her soul. The next story, “Nude Hose,” is another delight. Eighteen-year-old Susanna dallies with an older co-worker. She knows he has a bad reputation but fails to heed the signals: “He was in a bad mood today. There was something in his eyes—not anger but an angry wariness, as if he knew he was being double-crossed but hadn’t figured out who the traitor was.”
I didn’t like the protagonist in the title piece, who hits something while driving her car and only later tries to find out what it was. “The Taker,” about a horrible houseguest, and “We Don’t Believe in That Crap,” about young sisters dealing with a fat babysitter, seem to strain for laughs. But “The Little Rats” is a humdinger. Hannah Beale, age 40, recalls an eighth-grade trip to France with private-school classmates: the girls found out the boys had ranked them, and they fought to get hold of the list. As Hannah drinks coffee with the school’s development officer, who is angling for a donation, Hannah’s long-ago shame returns: “Most of the girls in Hannah’s class were Kates, meaning they had been at the school from K through eight . . . Hannah was not a Kate—not even close.” Funny and incisive, the story sparkles with emotional acumen.
Ten books. By the end of my sprint of reading, I felt I’d had ten crushes. Dazed, I came back to earth. Which did I love, and which were infatuations, and did it matter? Novelist Robert C. S. Downs, my Penn State grad school mentor, says the test of a book is how often you think back on it. I’m still swooning over The Book of Goose. And as fall turns to winter, as deer cross the sere field behind my house, it is Molly my heart can’t let go of.
[1] YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION: Stories, by Louise Marburg. EastOver Press. $18.00p.

[2] THE COLOR LINE, by Igiaba Scego, trans. by John Cullen and Gregory Conti. Other Press. $19.99p.

[3] MOLLY, by Kevin Honold. Autumn House Press. $17.95p.

[4] THE SORCERER OF PYONGYANG, by Marcel Theroux. Atria Books. $26.99.

[5] MOTHER OF STRANGERS, by Suad Amiry. Pantheon Books. $27.00.

[6] DINOSAURS, by Lydia Millet. W. W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

[7] PERISH, by LaToya Watkins. Tiny Reparations Books/Penguin Random House. $27.00.

[8] THE BOOK OF GOOSE, by Yiyun Li. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00.

[9] THE PEOPLE IMMORTAL, by Vasily Grossman, trans. by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Books. $19.95p.

[10] A BLIND CORNER, by Caitlin Macy. Little, Brown. $27.00.