I love my reading challenges, but occasionally, I need to fit in the buzz books and the award winners, which are represented in two books in this post.
I would complain a little about celebrities starting book clubs if Oprah’s book club, back in the late nineties, didn’t bring a lot of great titles into my life. I say I’d complain because I wish I lived in a world where celebs didn’t have to encourage people to read, but that’s not this world, and Oprah’s books seem to have a similar goal to mine: read widely, open your eyes to other perspectives and situations in the world. My mom got into it but it was more about reading the It book, not about opening her eyes really to the plights of others. I can say that because I don’t even think she knows I have a blog. Ha.
This one is from Reese Witherspoon’s book club and I confess I have not taken the time to look into the titles she recommends. I usually know what they are because they float through my Audible promo emails, but I don’t look at their blurbs. But when my father wanted me to read this one too, stating it was a favorite of his, I knew at least that it ended okay. He doesn’t enjoy tragic books. Then it was described as fitting for someone who loves Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell. Bruh. Bruh. I’ve read most of what they have written and I know what I have left to read. At least one of Karen’s is getting read for my summer reading posts. And this one was a six month plus wait on the electronic versions at the library. So that old feeling crept in that I have sometimes, that if I don’t catch this particular It book, then I can’t consider myself that widely read.
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
A young woman, Kya, abandoned by her family in the Carolina swamps back in the fifties is surviving on her own when the town discovers one of it’s favorites, a white rich guy who was a high school football star in the upper echelon of society, has fallen from a fire tower and is dead. He has had a romantic relationship with Kya, and she is tried for his murder.
Now, I spent a good part of this book waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had to coast on my father’s recommendation that he would not tell me to read something with weird sexual relationships or something really tragic. I had to coast on it because there was no way you could read this book and not become invested in Kya. I know about attachment and I feel Owens describes it well: yearning for closeness with others and to feel connected, but with so few opportunities, the times that she gets burned are not easily recovered from. Periods where she feels she is better off alone or with her more casual friendships, like the one with the black couple who buy her oysters for subsistence and give her things that she needs.
Other than becoming invested in Kya, I was concerned about how much like Karen Russell this one was. I think they meant more that it channels Swamplandia! her 2012 Pulitzer finalist, with feral children making their way in a unique environment. Russell is brilliant at setting up scenarios in unique environments. There were not the weird sexual relationships that characterize her short stories, at least in her collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. But nothing weird, no getting raped by her dad before he left, no neighborhood children hurting her. (Sidebar: I have Russell’s two other story collections right now and I haven’t read them yet! And she has read her stories on Podcasts I have not consumed!)
This was brilliant also in its focus of natural history entwined with the American South at that point in history, a time that many think of as the good ol’ days, but shows the reality of the marginalized at that time and the slowly changing attitudes toward the marginalized. The natural history part was also reminiscent of Anthony Doerr, but the writing is probably more like Kingsolver without the doom and gloom of how we are ruining the planet. Kya’s love and interest in her environment, mixed with her complicated relationship history with members of the outside world and the portrait of the outside world at that point in time combine to make this novel’s compelling brilliance what it is. I don’t regret using an entire Audible credit on it.
Milkman, Anna Burns
Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is less accessible than Owens’ book, even though it also involves the complications of being a female who is different in a world where being different isn’t welcomed. A young woman is being pursued by an older man in 1970’s Ireland, and although she does not want the attention, it sets off rumors and commentary and judgments on her.
There is a plot, but I felt it was a little slow and rambling to get there. It read mostly like a stream of consciousness. I primarily listened to this as a way of consuming it, and I think the female narrator with the Irish accent helped bring this one to life. I think it is supposed to be the rambling thoughts of a typical girl in that day and time who is interesting. Who reads while walking and doesn’t want her mother to pressure her into the correct social behavior at the time, like marrying young and in general just not being true to herself. The language was intentionally repetitive, discussing ‘political problems’ and being ‘beyond the pale’ and ‘maybe-boyfriend.’ No one is named. The protagonist tries to avoid the man and can’t seem to explain to anyone her feelings on it and be believed and taken seriously. It’s assumed that since he is showing attention to her that she is willingly jumping in his bed, despite being significantly older than she and married. I imagine this book encapsulates the frustration of this situation for any woman who is rumored to be involved in something she is disgusted with merely because the man seems to be interested and n one takes the time to listen to her about it.
Both of these books are about assumptions people make about women or anyone without privilege, implying more intention and fault than just matter of course and unlucky coincidence. Women in these books are both under and overestimated, judged, talked about for being themselves or for situations beyond their control. And for these reasons I am glad they have been in the spotlight as much as they have. I’m pleased that buzz books now aren’t completely about the plights of the white and privileged. I’m pleased that the award winners are about opening eyes, mine included. Assumptions are dangerous things.
BookRiot lists for June and then something different for July is in the making.