By Samantha Claire Updegrave
Summer is on. It’s been in the 70s in Seattle. My favorite radio station plays the best tunes in the morning as I scramble eggs and help my little guy open his yogurt. And in the early evenings, my son, who is now six years old, will curl up next to me in the big bed, his own book in hand, and read to himself. I have dreamed of this moment. Granted, he reads out loud, but it’s the experience that counts. Once he finishes, he asks me to read my book out loud so he can hear what I’m reading. For a moment, the tenderness is astounding in a way I never expected when I became a mom.
It reminds me of why I read. If reading literary fiction – with all its ambiguities, emotional complexity, and power to deliver us into someone else’s heart and mind – increases our emotional intelligence and empathy, so does parenting. This list could easily be written in three or four versions with little overlap, so I’ve focused largely on novels from the last four years.
brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
It’s a bit of cheat to start with this one because technically, this is a memoir, and it happens to be written in free verse (poetry that’s not in meter and doesn’t rhyme). It’s up here because this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. Jacqueline Woodson is a critically acclaimed young adult author with seventeen books to her name so you might also discover some good bonus reading from this one – which makes up for my cheating.
brown girl dreaming is Woodson’s story about growing up in Greensville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York during the 60s and 70s. Between her two worlds, with the civil rights movement unfurling in the background, her family changes shape and geographies, but the deep-rooted family love is steady. In the chapter “off-key” she writes,
My whole family knows I can’t sing. My voice,
my sister says, is just left of the key. Just right
of the tune.
But I sing anyway, whenever I can.
This is a beautiful metaphor as Woodson explores her coming of age, which includes struggles with reading and writing.
Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston
Pam Houston has a self-admitted reputation for writing “autobiographical fiction.” The main character in Contents May Have Shifted is named Pam, and it’s noted on the back cover that the Pam in the book is “a character not unlike the author.”
Contents, like so much of Houston’s writing, is sharp-witted, as warm as it is raw, accessible and dazzling. The chapters are organized by place and flight numbers and take readers to California, Tunisia, New Zealand, and many stops in between, through impossible flights and landings. The short sections make this one great for toting around – you can get lost as the story rolls from one place to the next, or grab it when you only have a few spare minutes. Pam’s journeys are full of friends, her partner, and body workers, and taken in sum her travels and relationships piece together the ways we heal ourselves, one leap at a time.
Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika Wurth
Erika Wurth’s debut novel about sixteen-year old Magaritte, a drug-dealing Native American, pulls readers through the muck of poverty and addiction, hope and the longing for escape. Wurth packs a lot of tenderness inside raw, vivacious, and humorous prose.
Magaritte wants out of the life she sees other girls falling into – teen pregnancy, drug abuse. Along with her cousin and best friend Jake, who she also deals drugs with, she dreams of getting out and having a real life. But no matter how deep her longing, she repeatedly makes bad choices, landing her in the ER. As things at home get increasingly worse, she discovers she’s pregnant from the boy she’s been dating, and has to choose between living the life she’s always feared and the life she longs for. Girlfriend challenges mainstream expectations and perceptions of race, class, and girlhood, as well as what “choice” really means.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You has to be one of the best titles for a book, ever. Celeste Ng’s debut novel is a staggering study of personhood and familial relations, the narrator as the recorder for the family’s inner, unspoken thoughts and desires.
The book drops us right in at the moment before everything collapses: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”
Ng then maps the interior landscapes of each member of the family, beginning – “like everything begins: with mothers and fathers” – with Lydia’s parents Marilyn and James when they met in college, their courtship, marriage, their childhoods. The depth of exploration in this novel is as stunning as the writing itself. This was a slower read for me, even though I never wanted to set it down, because I found myself savoring the details of each characters’ inner life. In a way, I feel braver after having read it, more aware of how I want to parent my kid as he pushes to become his own person in the world, the person he’s meant to be.
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
Any season is the right season for digging into a Toni Morrison book. God Help the Child is her first novel set in our current time, and though it’s evident the characters carry with them the legacy of slavery’s historic trauma, Morrison approaches these enduring effects by peeling back the layers of her character’s childhoods.
Morrison weaves the story through short vignettes told from multiple perspectives. A woman who calls herself Bride is at the center – young, successful, beautiful, blue-black skinned – along with Booker, the man she loves but whom she knows little about, who leaves her. Sweetness, her light-skinned mother who shunned Bride as a child because she was so dark, frames the story, giving us the hard truth: “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”
Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge
Love Water Memory begins with a thirty-nine year old woman waded knee-deep and fully dressed in the San Francisco Bay, peering into the distance for something she can’t place. The voice of a stranger snaps her back to her senses; the cold numbness in her legs, the heaviness of her feet. She has no recollection of why she’s there or who she is. At the hospital psych ward she learns she is suffering a dissociative fugue, a rare form of amnesia the doctor’s believe was caused by an emotional trauma.
When her fiancé Grady discovers she’s been found, the woman gets her name back – Lucie Walker. Love is Lucie’s journey as she discovers who she is as she’s piecing together who she was, tracing a path back to a past so terrible she’d buried it long ago. And it’s Grady’s story too, as he also has no choice but to confront his own wounds and walls that grew from the loss of his father.
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch’s forthcoming novel The Small Backs of Children is my most anticipated summer read. I recently read her memoir The Chronology of Water, a roiling account of her life as a swimmer, wife, lover, daughter, sister, writer. It is one powerful piece of literature that continues to stick to my ribs.
Here’s the back cover preview:
“In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes—and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own.”
In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends—including a fearless bisexual poet, an ingenuous performance artist, and the writer’s playwright brother and painter ex-husband—to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—East and West, real and virtual—collide?”
Yes, please! Out July 1, 2015.
The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock
I was touched by this story, which I came to read after devouring Karen Finneyfrock’s poetry collection Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. I wasn’t sure how her prowess as a poet would translate to prose, and there was all the hubbub about how adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature in Slate last year. Some of the criticisms of adults reading YA are that the characters lack the mature perspectives found in adult fiction, ambiguities that are part of real life is largely absent, and the conclusions are often satisfying and overly simplistic. Fair enough, but oh my…. I loved this book. Finneyfrock’s use of language is both honest and bare, no wasted words, direct and exactly how the protagonist, who calls herself Celia the Dark, would know and understand her world.
Revenge is the story of Celia Door, a girl entering the ninth grade with one thing on her mind: revenge against the popular Sandy Firestone, the girl who committed a cruel act against Celia and inspired her to “turn dark.” When Celia is presented with her opportunity, her plan backfires and endangers her best friend Drake and their friendship.
It is true – the ending is incredibly satisfying. But as an adult, I found it healing to read Celia’s version of her story with all my mature perspective in place, because it was a way of seeing myself then, acknowledging all my big and tiny hurts I carried, from the vantage point of who I am now.
Torch by Cheryl Strayed
Another work of “autobiographical fiction,” Torch was Cheryl Strayed first book, preceding her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by several years. This novel, which she began piecing together on the PTC hike chronicled in Wild, tells the story of a loving and strong family that unravels when Teresa, mother and wife, is diagnosed with cancer at age 38 and given only a few months to live. Her children, Claire and Joshua, and partner Bruce, all deal with grief in different ways, which ultimately pulls them apart.
Beautifully rendered, exposing the gaping holes left by sudden loss and grief and the myriad ways we try to fill them in, Strayed’s novel shows us what it is to be human and alive in the face of the unbearable.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Before saying anything about Roxane Gay’s debut novel, I have to warn you that it is gut wrenching, uncomfortable, and violent. And while I am not one to normally read books with detailed accounts of violence, this is well worth making the exception. The writing is engaged with the world of the book, crisp and clear. Having read on the jacket cover that this is a story “of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places” kept me going. I knew there was more than survival on the other side of the traumas. Redemption. I was holding out for it.
Gay writes with precision and control, exposing the links between wealth, corruption, and violence. Even though she puts us in right in the same room as this brutality, the chaos and terror are always held within this larger framework. And in Mireielle, she also shows us how a woman finds resiliency in impossible situations.
When I first read this novel, my son watched more TV that weekend than he normally does in a month. Even when scenes made me wince, I could not put the book down, not even for a minute. Reading, it never felt like gawking, or gratuitous, never violence for the sake of entertainment. It felt important to be a witness.
Samantha Claire Updegrave‘s writing career began with cut n’ paste zines, and now appears in The Rumpus, Bitch, and Hip Mama. By day, she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner and young son. She teaches prose writing at the Hugo House and is a nonfiction editor at Soundings Review.