- What: The Dutch House
- Who: Ann Patchett
- Pages: 337, hard cover
- Genres: Historical fiction and family drama
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flame
Some writers are so subtle in their greatness that it can be tough to describe why you like their writing and novels so much. After I read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth three years ago, I knew it was my favorite book, but I couldn’t initially pinpoint why. And isn’t that a sign of a great writer? We want their abilities to work so well together that you can’t separate them piece by piece. We want them to create a conglomeration of greatness and to close the book saying, “Ahh now that’s a good one.”
Ann Patchett has done that again with her latest novel, The Dutch House.
This one didn’t take long for me to finish reading because I enjoyed it so much — just like Commonwealth. The difference between this one and the first book she gifted to me? This time I analyzed the crap out of her writing, so I can tell you — my faithful fans — why I love Patchett’s novels so much. Trust me: You’ll want to read the total fangirling that’s about to hit this page.
I’ve always proclaimed one of the best things about literature is its ability to tell hidden or disgraced stories and to open our eyes to dark corners of the world. It saddens me — though I’m grateful it happened — that literature taught me about the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. Shouldn’t I have learned more about this growing up and in school? Honestly, my ignorance as a 27-year-old astonishes me.
Did I fully understand the power and effects of this catastrophe in the 80s? How it ripped through a community and denounced a way of life all over again? How it took us five steps back on our way toward social justice? How the scars of those it affected live prominently for the rest of their lives?
I never understood any of this until Tell the Wolves I’m Home came into my life. It was reinforced and explained through different perspectives with The Great Believers just a few weeks ago. As a kid, my history classes either conveniently glazed over this time in American history, or the school year conveniently ended before we made it this far in America’s story. Fortunately, we have authors, such as Carol Rifka Brunt and Rebecca Makkai, who refuse to let these tragedies go untold.
Seldom do I find a TV show or movie that I like more than the books that inspired them. The Notebook and A Walk to Remember may be the exceptions here (I remember when I loved Nicholas Sparks…), and Crazy Rich Asians was so good on the silver screen that it was a close call. The adapted screenplays of two TV shows in recent years neared the quality of their inspirations as well: Sweetbitter and Big Little Lies.
So when I heard that sequels to both of these shows were coming to my living room this year, I perked up.
But then the premieres came and went. Season two of Big Little Lies premiered when I was in Africa, and I never attempted to watch when I returned. I couldn’t help but feel lackluster toward it. Then, one Saturday not too long after, I tried watching an episode of Sweetbitter. I was already a few behind and expected to binge the series. Five minutes into that one episode, though, I turned it off. Admittedly, some small skepticism had been brewing for these shows since my initial excitement; it was just a matter of time before the reasoning clicked. That confirmation came in the shape of Sweetbitter‘s five-minute failure when I realized that the non-sequel sequel is not my forte.
- What: Ask Again, Yes
- Who: Mary Beth Keane
- Pages: 390, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction and family drama
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flame
I’m no stranger to suburban families with more than enough drama to keep them busy. No, not my family. (We’re actually very rural and very boring.)
No, I mean the families that race into my life via the novels that tell their story. I didn’t really know suburban turmoil was a genre I loved (or that it was even a genre) until my latest read, Ask Again, Yes. From this novel, I learned I have a strong tendency to pick up books that relay familial drama and read them at lightening speed. These types of books absolutely enthrall me. There is something so appealing about the simplicity of everyday people’s lives and the fact that everyone and every family has some story to tell; we just might not see it on the surface. And those backgrounds speak volumes about who we are as individuals, how we interact with others, and the decisions we make. Not to mention we can all relate to them.
If you look through my library, you’ll see quite a few novels with this theme. Commonwealth, the best of the best, ignited my life in 2017, and Little Fires Everywhere did the same thing last year. I guess Ask Again, Yes won this year for heartbreaking and compelling family drama. I take that back: I know it has won.
- What: Beloved
- Who: Toni Morrison
- Pages: 324, soft cover
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1987
- The lit: of 5 flame
Do you ever wonder if you have a problem when you don’t like something that others love? When I hear a person doesn’t like Lady Gaga, I assume something doesn’t tick correctly. But do they ponder this too? They must.
I feel this way every now and then with books that have been elevated to immediate cultural superiority; usually, this happens with the classics, and I think, “Why does this influence and touch everyone but me? Am I dark inside?”
And these are exactly the feelings I had while reading the legend Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For so long, I waited to feel the power and connection that so many readers before me had felt. After a while, though, I just waited anxiously for it to be over even if I did enjoy it more toward the conclusion. Beloved has been etched into American literature and culture for all time — and even won the Pulitzer Price for Fiction — but for this reader, the book did not live up to its expectations.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a coworker about the memories books create — how it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, you still remember the exact feeling a book gave you and the exact spot you were when you read it.
It doesn’t happen with everything I pick up, but it did with Colson’s Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I barely put down this moving and creative novel the minute I picked it up, and I’ll never forget how I could barely move from the bed in my Brooklyn apartment in the few days it took to read it. I remember being so incredibly in awe of such magic, triumph and heartbreak. And in my subconscious, I think the feelings that book evoked helped inspire Big Little Literature.
Because of these strong feelings, I was a bit skeptical to read Whitehead’s latest The Nickel Boys. I mean, there’s just no way anything can compare, right? Well, his 2019 novel brings the same emotions and power, and I finished this one in a matter of hours (as I descended into Denver accompanied by some devoted speed-reading because no way was I waiting to finish it until I got to my hotel). The verdict is in, and let’s just say it gave The Underground Railroad a very good run for its money.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t fully understand white privilege until a couple of months ago. I’m ashamed of this. I knew it existed, and that it had been a part of my life as much as any other white person’s, but I didn’t really get it. It’s important to admit ignorance and more importantly to overcome it.
I was running on a hot, humid July day and listening to Armchair Expert, a fantastic podcast with Dax Shepard, when it happened. He was interviewing one of my favorite humans — and one of the most woke — Sophia Bush, the genius who gave the world Brooke Davis. As she explained that white privilege is not meant to diminish anybody’s suffering but rather to illustrate that suffering as a white person has never been the result of the color of our skin, it clicked for me.
It is so blatantly clear that white privilege exists.
And it’s this theme, along with feminism, humor, and mental health, that brings us Queenie, a 2019 novel that author Richard Roper recommended to me. This book is the epitome of intersectionality (don’t worry: I had to Google that term too) and all sorts of sociological terms rolled up into a few hundred pages, but author, Candice Carty-Williams, injects plenty of laughs into it as well. That means we should have a compelling novel on our hands. Unfortunately, I only felt connected and drawn to half of this book, leaving me confused about my feelings. Carty-Williams tackles a lot of topics and their complex relationships with one another in Queenie, and it’s certainly a book we need in 2019. But is it the novel that fully delivers on it’s worth? I’m not sure.