Everything Here is Under Control – Adrian

Photo Credit: emilyadrianbooks.com

“We’re still too cute about all the stuff that happens to our bodies,” says Michelle Wolf in Joke Show, her latest stand up. “We’ve gotta stop being cute. Like, when we have a baby, we say it’s a miracle–stop it!” Having a baby, Wolf asserts, is “a natural disaster,” arguing that women will never get the healthcare and respect we deserve unless we’re brutally honest about our experiences.

Enter Emily Adrian’s latest novel, Everything Here is Under Control. This book should be required reading for the strangers at the grocery store who look at your two-week old baby and ask, “Is she sleeping through the night yet?” Or the endless stream of middle aged men who declare, “You’ve got your hands full!” as you wrangle both of your children to the parking lot.

In Adrian’s hands, the hazy, mostly terrifying early postpartum weeks are anything but cute.

Amanda, a first-time mom living in New York, visits her Ohio hometown and shows up on her friend’s doorstep, partly out of desperation, but also drawn back to this friend, at whose birth she was present years prior, divulging unresolved tensions and revealing tender spots in their relationship.

Adrian’s novel tackles the animal ugliness of facing three in the morning with a screaming infant. It tells of the bittersweet encounters of returning to your hometown. Most significantly, it describes the agitating conflicts of lifelong friendship, as well as its enduring intimacies.

Recently, I struck up a conversation via text message with a new mother, someone I had not spoken to since high school. My intention was to serve as a beacon of hope in the wilderness of early motherhood. Her baby is a mere two weeks old. Her assessment: “the nights are so long and lonely.” My response: “Those lonely nights are literally the worst.”

The nights are lonely and the emotions are frightening. Why is it that we expose ourselves to the natural disaster of motherhood?

A possible answer from Adrian’s novel: “I don’t remember. All I know is that I cannot un-have him, and I have never, for a single moment, wished I could.”

Thank you to Blackstone Publishing and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Everything Here is Under Control by Emily Adrian

Fiction — Blackstone Publishing

Publication Date: 28 July 2020

The Harpy – Megan Hunter

Photo Credit: Grove Atlantic

There is a moment in Megan Hunter’s The Harpy when the narrator, a work-at-home mom in her 30s, hears someone say her name: “Mrs. Stevenson,” they call repeatedly. As she listens, the narrative abruptly shifts perspective. An omniscient narrator takes over, rendering Mrs. Stevenson as the object. A woman sits in a room, hearing herself be named. This shift, this sudden loss of control is a theme at the heart of The Harpy.

In this forthcoming novella, it is the loss of self to the role of wife and mother that directs the action and permeates the mental states of the characters. The mother’s loss of agency is palpable here.

Lucy Stevenson, mother, wife, writer, neighbor, are pieces of a self that become molded, stretched, and rearranged. “Like dough,” Hunter writes at one point, emphasizing the malleability of the self, of who we are and what we’ve done. Even the relationship with her husband feels “borderless,” their selves seeping out and into each other. “Mrs. Stevenson” is a woman “who would never be a real person again.” Unresolved trauma from her childbirth and the hint of a sexual assault in her young adulthood, combined with a sense of feeling “invisible” form Lucy’s mental state, compel her to plead with an imaginary harpy to “get the ones who hurt me.”

Despite the straightforward labels that Lucy wears, she is insistent that she not become the cliche of any of them. When she discovers her husband’s affair, she dreads playing out “those TV shows,” narratives “that seemed to have greater texture than my own existence.” In her struggle to not perform the expected routine, to not “say all the things we’d both seen,” she instead finds herself pushing the categories of herself away, finding that she is becoming the self that she was destined to become.

Hunter’s slow-burning novella will pull readers into the tempting glow of its relatable and tangible domestic sketches, and then shock them with its intensity.

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Fiction – Grove Atlantic, Grove Press

Publication date: 13 November 2020

The Need – Phillips

It was a third-year university course in metaphysics that introduced me to the theory of possible worlds. Immediately I was absorbed by the storytelling potential of this concept. Books and films which can effectively incorporate a parallel universe into their plots seem to persistently captivate audiences. A recent Netflix show, The Society, reinvigorates the idea (at least presumably, in the first season). The message from literature and film, however, is that finding an alternate universe rarely leads to positive results.

The Need, by Helen Phillips, strategically uses a parallel universe to tell her story of Molly, a paleobotanist who is haunted by its negative consequences. The science fiction aspect of this story is the part that glues the reader to its pages and gives the novel its heart-pounding quality.

Like some of the best science fiction, however, it is the mundane, human aspects of the novel that ultimately bless the story with its resonance and beauty.

The Need spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the dull work of a mother: putting apple sauce in bowls, forgetting a diaper and cleaning poop off the floor, remembering to feed one’s child at least two prunes a day, breastfeeding when the baby is indifferent, etc. etc. Phillip’s brilliance lies in her ability to make these moments of drudgery feel precious. These are the moments that build a life. We have historically tried to avoid them through childcare and technology, but they are still there.

The terror of this book comes from the persistent question that remains long after Phillips’s story is finished: is there a world where my children are no longer my children? Is there a world where I am no longer a mother?

The Need by Helen Phillips

Fiction – Simon and Schuster – 2019

Trail of Crumbs – Lawrence

Years ago, as a newly minted teacher, I was tasked with preparing a reading list for an after-school novel reading class comprised of seventh and eighth grade boys. While discussing the draft of my list with a friend (an author of young adult novels), I expressed my concern that the boys in the class wouldn’t identify with the female protagonist of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. My friend reminded me that, as females, we have spent years of our education reading books featuring male characters and male protagonists. It is absurd, she argued, to consider a different standard for a class of boys. What harm could it do them to see a situation from a female perspective–especially one of sexual violence and bullying, as presented in Speak. I immediately agreed, and I think of this moment often, as both a teacher and a reader.

Trail of Crumbs, which I’ve come to think of as an updated version of Speak, gives the protagonist significantly more agency and power over her relationship to the trauma she has experienced. It is not a story about how the truth is pulled out of her. Rather, Greta continuously speaks up for herself, and it is up to those around her to listen to her and believe her. The focal point is not whether she’ll speak up for herself, but whether she will be heard.

Lisa J. Lawrence, a teacher as well as a writer, captures these tense high school moments accurately and beautifully. There is so much nuance and thoughtful dialogue surrounding the discussions of assault and consent. Sometimes, Greta’s thoughts and interactions with her peers read as though they were lifted directly from articles from the frontlines of #MeToo. Lawrence never lets her novel become merely an educational pamphlet, however. The strength of this work is that the conversations seem natural between these teens. These are conversations that young people should be having and likely do have.

While Greta deals with fallout from the unbelievable cruelty of her peers and abandonment by her father, she seeks support and guidance from a troupe of eccentric but benevolent male characters: her emotionally haywire brother, Ash; their reclusive guardian, Elgin; and their goofy neighbor, Nate. These men support but do not shelter Greta. It is Greta’s actions and Greta’s decisions that allow her to confront those who need to be confronted.

Most importantly, Lawrence has put a disclaimer at the end of her novel: She writes that the choice Greta makes to confront her assailant is not the choice everyone should make. Every case of assault is different, and no one should feel pressured to follow any particular process. Yet again, Lawrence is extremely nuanced and sensitive in her approach to these complex and current issues.

School librarians should welcome this new addition to Canadian young adult literature, and teachers of middle and high school students should absolutely consider including Trail of Crumbs in their lesson plans.

Thank you to Orca Book Publishers and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Young adult literature – Orca Book Publishers – Publication date 26 March 2019

Reading This Week

“Search for the New Land” by Morgan Parker, in the Feb 21 issue of The New York Review of Books – This poem moved me so much that I went to a bookstore within the hour and bought Parker’s poetry collection, “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.”

Discovering Words by Neepin Auger – This is a wonderful picture book for very young children (approx. 0-2). There is one illustration per page, and each illustration is described in English, French, and Cree. This is a must-have book for children living in Canada.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Continuing my read of Vice, Crime, and Poverty by Dominique Kalifa – This book prompted me to read the entire Wikipedia article on the Black Death. Yikes.

Reviews from this week:

Anna at the Art Museum by Hazel Hutchins

Diana Dances by Luciano Lozano 

The Learning Curve by Mandy Berman

The Learning Curve – Berman

The Learning Curve, the forthcoming second novel by Mandy Berman, might as well have the subtitle, “a modern parable for the privileged woman,” such is the impression the reader has after finishing this ambitious and, ultimately, frustrating novel.

Among the dizzying amount of information covered in the plot, Berman’s characters navigate personal traumas, sexual politics, frat houses, European countries, visiting professorships, motherhood, alcohol abuse, crushes, failing marriages, failing research projects, failing relationships (romantic and otherwise), etc., etc.

In fact, Berman’s novel covers so many topics that it feels like walking into the brain of an author working on five different novels at once. One need only to read Berman’s acknowledgments to see the surprisingly multifarious research that went into writing The Learning Curve.

In some ways, the parable-feel of the novel is appropriate. During a college seminar called “Sex, Sentiment, and Sympathy,” Fiona and Liv, the two student characters, learn about 18th-century stories that cautioned their readers about the consequences faced by women who dared step outside social norms. Fiona reflects later that these cautionary tales apply to our current treatment of women (Monica Lewinsky is her example). Indeed, the connections between these 18th-century “coquettes,” and the characters themselves are engaging, and one wishes Berman would have spent more time on these developments, rather than swiftly moving on to new territory.

Strikingly similar to this novel is The Red Word, by Canadian author Sarah Henstra (winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award). The two novels both place the female student in dialogue with seemingly incongruous campus circumstances: advanced literary seminar vs. raucous frat party, feminist declarations vs. questionable sexual encounters with sketchy dudes, hagiographies of beloved female professors vs. obsessions with “bad” boys. Henstra’s novel is triumphant in portraying contradictory scenarios and deftly abandoning the reader to weigh the ethics of the characters and their decisions. Berman’s novel, on the other hand, pushes the reader to inauthentic conclusions (i.e. “lessons learned”), using characters who are too busy filling their assigned roles to really resonate.

The stimulating discussions of Berman’s characters and their self-reflective thoughts are lost in an excessive amount of exposition: two sisters share a glass of wine while having a personal conversation. Is it really necessary to justify why one of the women is drinking? (She’s in her third trimester, so it’s safe, Berman tells us.)

Readers looking for a drama-filled campus story will find pleasure but will get lost in the many digressions Berman takes. Those looking for more social commentary and fully articulated characters will be disappointed.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

The Learning Curve – Mandy Berman

Fiction – Random House – Publication Date: 28 May 2019

Permission – Vogel

A recent episode of Radiolab discussed the connections between the notion of consent and the systems in place to protect participants in the BDSM community. It was clear that, in many cases, proponents of BDSM often have rigid guidelines to ensure consent is established prior to any activity between two people.

It was also unfortunately clear, from firsthand accounts described in the podcast, that these systems can sometimes malfunction. As Saskia Vogel states in her debut novel, Permission,

We might play at power, exploring roles not yet available to us outside these four walls, but for the space to be sacral, it had to be held sacred by us all.

This perceptive reflection from the narrator of the novel has far-reaching implications, certainly beyond the walls of BDSM and even beyond sex itself.

In many ways, it seems as though the understanding and awareness of fantasy and desire on one hand and reconciling our sexuality with the reality of our lives on the other can lead to a more effective system of advocating – and therefore consenting – for ourselves.

Vogel has explained that she turned to literature after her time working as a reporter for a porn industry magazine, suggesting, however, that she continues to explore many of the same questions about discovery, awareness, and acceptance in her current work.

In a lecture about the porn festival, Viva Erotica, Vogel recalls trying to find a way to get audiences to “look at porn as part of, and not separate from, popular culture and the art of cinema.” This project is apparent in Permission. The prose of this novel asks and then demonstrates how the elements of erotica and literary fiction can merge, overlap, intertwine. In many ways, the composition of this novel mirrors life itself.

Reflecting on one’s own sexuality and sexual history in the wake of #MeToo can often be deeply connected to all of the complexities of one’s life and identity. Using the character of Echo, Vogel has the perfect opportunity to explore these connections.

In the novel, Echo is navigating three aspects of her life: a recent family tragedy, complex memories from her adolescence connected to her sexual identity, and the conflicted past and precarious present she has with the entertainment industry. As she confronts each of these facets, she is drawn into the world of her family’s neighbor, Orly, who helps Echo discover herself and reflect on her experiences.

In writing this novel, Vogel has drawn comparisons to Joan Didion. While a comparison to Didion’s writing may be a bit overblown, there is definitely some truth to a thematic link between the two. Like Didion, Vogel locates danger and tragedy in the Californian landscape. There are movie stars and glamorous lifestyles, but there are also jagged cliffs, the impending doom of the San Andreas fault, and disappearances in the Los Angeles canyons. Echo is “forever waiting for tragedy.”

When discussing landscape, the idea of distance is never far off. In Los Angeles, distance is everything. For Echo, the distance between her parents’ home in the canyons and her downtown apartment is vast, though only a car ride away. Even the short distance between neighbors’ homes is prohibitive. It is possible to never meet the person living right next to you.

In Permission, Echo learns that in order to understand herself and cultivate intimacy, she must be willing to eradicate the distance between two bodies, to truly “merge,” as she recalls at one point. In a strikingly surreal sex scene, the physical borders of the body are ripped away; two bodies completely engulf each other.

For a novel that is this brief, there are some odd preoccupations: In one case, Echo repeatedly thinks about the pre-made deli counter food that she eats directly from the containers in her mother’s fridge. Various pre-made salads are given more attention than necessary. The narrator regularly reflects on her mother’s German identity, frequently mentioning her pronunciation of words and desire to move back to “the continent”. While these traits of her mother could provide some valuable insight into the depths of this character, they are not delved into deeply enough for them to be clearly relevant to the story.

In some areas, descriptions venture towards eye-roll territory: “My sheets did not yet smell like sorrow,” or “Alongside my orgasm, sorrow and fear coursed through me.” In general, however, Vogel’s ability to think about the erotic as a legitimate literary technique is encouraging and commendable.

This novel will make a huge impact on the way we consider genre in literature, and it will certainly provide a significant contribution to discussions of sexual identity, desire, acceptance, and consent.

Thank you to Coach House Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Permission – Saskia Vogel

Coach House Books – Literary Fiction – Release Date: 9 April, 2019