The Canon: Books to Read in April

Beyoncé, life after a stroke, and the most meta fairy tale ever.

Reviews by Ann Mayhew, Celia Mattison, Daley Farr, Kaylen Ralph, and Natasha Kallish

Graphic by Anna Meyer


The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso


Out: 2/7/17

Omotoso explores female friendship, the lives of elderly women, and racism in her smart and refreshing U.S. debut novel.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino both led highly successful careers in creative fields, boast strong personalities with a streak of stubbornness, and have been recently widowed. They’re also next-door neighbors in an exclusive South African neighborhood. Despite these similarities, there is one glaring difference: Hortensia is black, and Marion is white. Between their strong personalities and different life experiences, it’s not surprising the two are bitter rivals.

When Hortensia and Marion are unexpectedly drawn into close quarters (thanks to a freak renovation accident resulting in Marion’s need for temporary housing and Hortensia’s need for an able-bodied companion), their assumptions are challenged. Marion begins to realize that she is, indeed, quite racist, despite the best of intentions, while Hortensia is challenged to take a deeper look at her former marriage and the emotional barriers she has put up throughout her life. Honest discussions begin to take place, forcing each woman to confront not just each other, but themselves. Slowly, a deep understanding replaces the hatred.

Omotoso treats her characters and themes delicately and deftly, allowing their complexities to naturally reveal themselves. No one character or situation is reduced to a stereotype. Hortensia and Marion deal with the challenges of old age, such as physical limitations, without being defined by such issues; Hortenisa helps Marion recognize her inherent racism without being pigeon-holed into the role of the forgiving Black person educating the well-meaning white person.

One of the best parts of The Woman Next Door is that it focuses on the lives and friendship of elderly women (and not just any elderly women, but badass, independent, flawed-but-strong elderly women), something rare in contemporary literature. The Woman Next Door is a thought-provoking representation of timely issues, peppered with smart humor and unforgettably fantastic female protagonists.

Ann Mayhew


There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Tin House

Out: 2/14/17

It seems impossible that there could still be more to say about Beyoncé, but poet Morgan Parker quickly distinguishes her commentary from the rest with her irresistibly sharp voice and feverishly precise exploration of black womanhoods in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé.

Beyoncé appears fleetingly in this collection; she enters poems as subject, narrator, or cultural landmark but most often as a lingering presence. Her lyrics are not referenced so much as invoked, prayer-like: “wake up, flawless/ subjected, flawless.” At times, her ghost is obvious simply in the swaggering rhythm of Parker’s lines, “I bless/ the dark, tuck/myself into a cannon/of steel. I breathe/ dried honeysuckle/and hope.”

Perceptions of black women are explored throughout the collection, as is the history of hatred and objectification of the black female body. Does Parker exist as a woman, if at all? “I am technically nothing/ human. I will never be/ a woman.” Or is she a vessel, a “crater of birth and service?” Parker challenges the commodification of and desire for black women’s bodies, “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD.” In one poem, RoboBeyoncé gyrates so “you can put your eyes on me. It’s less about obedience than/ silvery lipstick stains/ It’s mostly about machine tits.” Still, Beyoncé resists — after having body-swapped with Lady Gaga, she celebrates her figure in a lament: “I’d miss my booty/ in your butt.”

Most importantly, Parker celebrates the joys and beauty of black femininity, in all of its messiness and multiplicities. Parker’s triumph is explicit as she overcomes her anxieties, quotes Kanye, stays on her “grown woman shit,” and stunts in her streets, “I open my stylish legs I get my swagger black/ Let men with gold teeth bow to my tits.”

Celia Mattison


Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee


Out: 2/14/17

While on vacation during New Year’s Eve 2006, a blood clot slipped through a literal hole in 33-year-old Lee’s heart and traveled into her brain, eventually lodging itself into her left thalamus — and subsequently causing the stroke that would completely change Lee’s life.

Combining science and personal experience, Lee chronicles the consequences of her stroke in this striking memoir. She shares how it forced her to relearn old coping habits, effectively ended her marriage, and influenced her writing. Because the stroke destroyed her short-term memory, Lee meticulously took notes throughout her recovery, and these became valuable resources when she decided to begin work on this memoir.

Content and form meet to reflect Lee’s visceral experiences. Language is used to indicate the way time ran together (lack of punctuation), how Lee’s damaged memory perceives only the present moment (strong stops), and the resulting disorientation (repetition, lack of focus). Similarly, references to Lee’s past throughout the narrative, including her upbringing as the child of immigrants and her history of depression, at first feel jarring and undeveloped. As one reads on, this effect seems purposeful as it forces the reader to experience Lee’s world in the same disjointed way she also had to experience it immediately after her stroke.

Lee subverts the all-too-common recovery memoir with her raw and self-aware take on this period of her life. Tell Me Everything provides reassurance to those who have faced obstacles and found themselves with unexpected consequences even after said obstacles have been vanquished. “No one told me that getting better meant becoming different,” Lee writes. “And that different meant a sense of loss. And that the loss would eclipse improvement until I saw improvement.” It’s easy to focus on what was, Lee seems to say. It’s much harder to see what is.

Ann Mayhew


The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Haymarket Books

Out: 3/7/17

Early on in her new book of essays, Solnit marks 2014 as a turning point for feminism. That year, between Gamergate, the Isla Vista killings, and a new wave of allegations against Bill Cosby, hateful acts against women were finally being “recognized as part of a pattern of violence that constituted a genuine social crisis.” In this latest collection, Solnit explores the last three years as a period of burgeoning feminist thought and visibility.

In The Mother of All Questions, Solnit turns her attention and keen wit toward the devastating effects of misogyny on men; patriarchal values in government infographics; progressive politics in old movies; and the inroads that women have made in the streets, in courtrooms, and online, with particular attention to young activists and survivors.

It is heartening to read Solnit as she celebrates the work of a younger generation of feminists. Sidestepping the tired narrative of generational discord, Solnit remarks upon the unprecedented shift in our national consciousness due to the creative and persistent activism of women of all ages, and increasingly young women’s refusal to suffer under the same silence forced upon their predecessors.

Early on, the book’s energy sometimes lags as metaphor dulls Solnit’s otherwise potent ideas. But her sharp insight shines throughout, as in “A Year After Seven Deaths,” a moving account of the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders. The book romps toward its conclusion through several wickedly incisive essays, with Solnit at her funniest in cutting tracts like “Men Explain Lolita to Me.”

In the collection’s final essay, a personal analysis of the 1956 Elizabeth Taylor film Giant, Solnit writes, “Works of art that accompany you through the decades are mirrors in which you can see yourself … They remind you that it’s as much what you bring to the work of art as what it brings to you that matters, and they become registers of how you’ve changed.” In this book, feminism is a continuous process, one that uses historical context to illuminate the present, and which allows us to revisit even the familiar past with fresh eyes.

Daley Farr


The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong

Graywolf Press

Out: 3/7/17

Childhood, neglect, and the role of the artist are intertwined in Yujoo’s eerie and haunting novel The Impossible Fairy Tale. In a late 1990s classroom, youthful innocence is matched by flagrant cruelty, a place in which the mentally ill schoolmate is bullied and bullies are revered. Here, the reader meets Mia, a kind-hearted but naïve, spoiled girl, and the Child, who “makes so little impression that she doesn’t even merit a name.” As part of their schoolwork, the students chronicle their lives in journals. The Child exerts control over her peers one night by breaking in and adding a single sentence to each notebook. This action — these seemingly minor alterations to each student’s story — sets into motion a devastating chain of events for the children.

What is the role of the parent to the child — or of the artist to the creation? While Yujoo’s disturbing depiction of one child abused and neglected by her parents (juxtaposed with another who is spoiled) can be taken at face value, this novel’s story truly revolves around the weight of creation and the cyclical nature of physical life to art, and art to life. Roughly two-thirds through the book, the narrative abruptly switches: the author of The Impossible Fairy Tale’s first part wakes up and learns the central character in her story — the Child — is real, and at her apartment, ready to confront the author about the events of the novel’s first half.

The final layer to this exploration of the artist, creation, and responsibility, is language. Superficially, the beauty of Yujoo’s writing and her expert word play, incredibly well translated by Hong, strengthens the sense of horror and unease that grows throughout the novel. But language is also used by Yujoo is heighten the novel’s self-awareness. The second part’s narrator is not just the “author” of the first part, but also a writing teacher. “You all assumed the story I told you was true, or at least partly true,” the author/narrator teaches her class. “Such is the power of story.” The unnerving quality of The Impossible Fairy Tale comes from the way it challenges the reader to question what a story is, while simultaneously forcing the reader to participate in it by the act of reading.

Ann Mayhew


South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion


Out: 3/7/17

South and West is hard to pin down; categorically, the small tome is a collection of two published notebooks that Joan Didion kept during her travels through the South (in 1970) and the West (in 1976). The From a Notebook half of the book’s combination title reveals this aspect from the get. For Didion groupies, the opportunity for unfettered, “unedited” access to the literary icon’s psyche is a more than sufficient reward.

Progressing past the construct, however, offers the opportunity for multiple interpretations. Is South and West actually a “how to” for longform journalists and travel essayists? Or does it find its sweet spot as a cultural analysis of Southern culture (one that feels eerily prescient today)? Perhaps the entries are most effectively read as a meditation on place. The beauty of this book — Didion’s prose dripping, dropping gorgeously aside — is that it succeeds fully as all of the above, despite offering only the barest bones necessary to categorize the scant 120 pages as anything more than a notebook.

None of Didion’s previously published works, including five novels, nine books of nonfiction, and one play, are particularly long — a Didion word always gets more for its dollar, after all. But the timing of South and West’s publication is exceptional. After the 2016 election, literary elites (you know, the type to be hyped over a new Didion) jockeyed to analyze and understand the Southern factions who helped carry President Donald Trump to victory. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became a best-seller, illustrating a real hunger for intimate and accurate portrayals of this bloc. Didion’s South entries read like the first drafts of the many think pieces that came out in light of the election, for better or worse. “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold,” she writes in Biloxi, Mississippi. “All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.”

“Most Southerners are political realists: they understand and accept the realities of working politics in a way we never did in California,” Didion writes in Birmingham, shortly before concluding her trip. “Graft as a way of life is accepted, even on the surface.”

Didion’s notebooks scratch the surface of the South just in time.

—Kaylen Ralph


Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell


Out: 3/14/17

Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel explores what it means to grieve through the experiences of 32-year-old Helen Moran. A Korean-American artist in exile, she stays busy as a self-proclaimed savior of troubled youth in New York City. After unexpectedly learning about her adoptive brother’s suicide, Helen decides to return to her hometown of Milwaukee in order to assume the responsibility of investigating his death.

After arriving at her childhood home, Helen confronts her estranged adoptive parents, forgotten high school classmates and the Internet to find out what led her brother to take his own life. Scattered along the plot’s periphery are topics surrounding mental illness and familial conflict, which Cottrell weaves into the story as Helen navigates the aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide. The resulting narrative eventually deviates from its focus on her brother and instead highlights their shared experiences as youth, the divergence of their lives in adolescence, and how they both grappled with the uncertainty of adulthood.

Where Cottrell truly succeeds is in her construction of Helen. Sometimes hilarious and other times downright vulgar, Helen is a character so introspective that it’s hard to not find her absolutely relatable. Her musings, which examine questions of existence, encourage readers to reflect on their own experiences with loss. Suspended between the fantasy of her imagination and the reality of her present, Helen moves through her world with a nonchalance that is both admirable and perplexing. Despite her eccentric nature and tendency to digress, Helen’s dedication to uncovering the truth remains steadfast. “Behind every suicide, there’s a door,” she says. “I’m certain the door is made of paper. I will shred it into pieces, then step calmly through it.”

A dark story laced with witty humor, Sorry To Disrupt The Peace is a poignant read that explores the complexity of a woman’s life through coming to terms with death.

Natasha Kallish