The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol

When I picked up Molly Antopol’s début story collection, The UnAmericans, from the library, I discovered that it comes with a heavy freight of praise: on the front cover, there’s a sticker identifying her as a National Book Foundation “5 under 35 author” and a blurb from Adam Johnson describing her as “a writer of seismic talent;” the back cover is filled by other big-name blurbers like Jesmyn Ward, Abraham Verghese, and Lauren Groff. I’m not sure about this marketing strategy, because there’s always part of me thinking “Bullshit!” (or at least “Really? Show me what you’ve got”). I don’t know if I’d call Antopol “a seismic talent”–I think the language many literary writers use to praise each other is clichéd nonsense–but I liked these stories a lot.

The eight stories in this volume span decades and continents: teenagers in a Jewish resistance group in WWII Belarus; a pair of brothers in the contemporary Israeli army; Jewish characters in California, New England, New York whose ties to the Old World and its politics, however weak, still bind them. They draw on Antopol’s family history, including the dark parts her relatives won’t talk about, but which she wants to understand (that link has some really interesting reflections from Antopol on what kinds of historical truth the novelist is responsible to).

The narrator of “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” a young woman who keeps prying into the family past, could be seen as a stand-in for the author. At the end of that story, her grandmother, a former resistance fighter, says,

I don’t understand you. All your life you’ve been like this, pulling someone into a corner at every family party, asking so many questions. . . . It’s a beautiful day. Your grandfather’s on the patio grilling hamburgers. . . . Why don’t you go out in the sun and enjoy yourself for once, rather than sitting inside, scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you? These horrible things that happened before you were born.

These, I think, are the questions around which the stories revolve: why are the narrators/point-of-view characters obsessed with a past or a politics that isn’t their own? Why can’t they just let it go and be ordinary and happy? Or is it theirs? Is it really true that something has “nothing to do with you” just because it happened before you were born? Continue reading

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Reading Challenge

This week featured–as seems inevitable lately–someone telling people they should be ashamed about what they read. You probably surrendered, as I did, to the lure of Slate’s clickbait and discovered that if you’re an adult, you should be embarrassed to read YA books, because they are simplistic dreck for children. There have been lots of good rebuttals and I’m not going to repeat them here. But I’m interested in the idea that reading YA (and presumably a lot of other popular things) is bad for adults because it means they aren’t challenging themselves. I’d like to challenge some of the common ideas about what “challenging” reading means, or what makes a challenging book.

This week, Eimear McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the style of which is widely described as “difficult,” and which was inspired in part by McBride’s reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I requested the book from my library. And then I read this comment from McBride:

Her experience suggests publishers have been underestimating readers, says McBride. “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”

She hopes her success might lead to the publication of other seriously ambitious novels. “There is a readership there, they deserve to be catered to, and literature needs new blood pumped through it all the time, or it becomes stale and purposeless. It’s not a museum piece. It needs to be pushed forward.”

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Reunion Reading, or What I Did Instead of RT

I would have loved to go to the RT convention to meet blogger/Twitter/author friends in real life. But I already had an East Coast trip enshrined in my May calendar: my 25th college reunion, to which I had promised to take my daughter. I’m not sorry about my choice, though I’d love to do a romance conference one day.

Gothic-style dormitory with castle towers.

My daughter outside my favorite dorm. My room, where the arrow is, had French doors onto the roof for drinking and sunbathing. Sadly, it has since been reconfigured.

And actually, I thought a lot about how my reunion was like RT. True, there was less discussion in advance about pedicures and shoes, more about who was bringing her lantern for Step Sing. And we talked about work and parents and children and partners and old times, not books and blogging and genre romance. But it was a few days spent in a community of amazing, smart, accomplished, supportive women (I went to a women’s college), catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. I even managed to meet up with some online pals, Victoria Janssen and Natalie Luhrs. It was a pretty great time.

Of course, it did involve two very long travel days, and hours without internet access mean reading! I am not the best at concentrating while traveling so I read bits of lots of things. Here are the highlights:

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Heyer’s Damerel and The Rake Hero

I love audiobooks for re-reading, whether it’s classics I might not otherwise make time to go back to or old favorite comfort reads. I’ve been building up a stash of Georgette Heyer novels on audio, and was thrilled when an unabridged Venetia finally became available. That novel’s hero, Lord Damerel, is often described as the prototypical reformed rake. While listening to it, I foolishly said I was going to write something about rake heroes, but I’m not sure I have anything worth saying–especially when many of my Romanceland friends are bigger Heyer experts than I am. Still, here are some thoughts that I hope will spark discussion. Certainly none of these are hard and fast opinions.

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Hearing Magic

Audible is having a 3 books for 2 credits sale, and I noticed that all 3 books of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy were in it. Sold. I didn’t even care whether the narrator, Robert Inglis, was any good (he is).

I have read these books many, many times over the past *cough* 35 *cough* years or so. I have taught A Wizard of Earthsea in my Children’s Literature class. So I know them well, and I admire them deeply. I think Le Guin is a great writer and story-teller. But I never understood what a great prose stylist she is until I heard her words in Inglis’ deep, somewhat sonorous voice.

Many of the sentences have the rhythm of epic or saga, The Odyssey or Beowulf. And what style could be more fitting for a story about a boy who goes on a journey to defeat a monster that turns out to be part of himself? The sentences aren’t pretentious or difficult–I first fell for this book when I was about 10, and though I understand it differently now, I wouldn’t say I understand it better. But they are poetry. I am enraptured.

Here are some examples, lineated as if they were poetry, sort of:
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