The Canon: Books to Read In July

Tarot 101, intangible bodies, and a beach bum turned cosmopolitan.

By Elizabeth Callen, Daley Farr, Jenean Marie Gilmer, Yana Makuwa ,Celia Mattison, Annie Metcalf, Kaylen Ralph, and Jordyn Taylor

Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Other Press
Out: 5/2/2017

In Minae Mizumura’s self-aware novel, Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, is dead. Mitsuki and her sister are shocked, relieved, and frankly, thrilled. In the opening scene, the sisters discuss the money they will inherit and how to use it. But as eager as Mitsuki is to plan the future, her thoughts are tethered to the past. Having discovered her husband Tetsuo’s latest infidelity on the same day her mother was admitted to the hospital for the final time, Mitsuki reserved her limited emotional energy for caring for Noriko. Now, with Noriko dead and Tetsuo abroad with the other woman, Mitsuki must reconsider the two most complex and meaningful relationships of her life: her husband and her mother.

In tribute to the lost art of serial novels—with frequent reference to noteworthy examples as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ozaki Kōyō’s The Golden DemonInheritance from Mother is constructed of 66 short chapters and was originally serialized in a Japanese newspaper in 2010. This influence goes beyond form and reveals itself in the novel’s exploration of legacy as well. Recalling the family legend that her grandmother left her first husband after reading The Golden Demon, Mitsuki muses that “she herself was the offspring of a serial novel.” Mitsuki sees that her existence, set in motion by a Japanese interpretation of a Western romance, is her most significant family legacy. As Mitsuki takes stock, it is clear that her memories, her opinions, and even her personality, are the true inheritance from her strong-willed mother.

Inheritance from Mother turns its critical gaze on both Western and Eastern novelistic conventions, deftly challenging the Japanese ideal of a sacrificial and devoted mother-daughter relationship and the Western concept of a heroine’s romantic journey.

Annie Metcalf

 Large Animals by Jess Arndt
Catapult
Out: 5/9/2017

A person wakes up with a thick slab of wood instead of a face, and stumbles through the morning trying to grasp what’s left of their faculties of language and memory. Someone imagines what their life could be with a slight phonological alteration to their name. A trip to an outdoor market in the desert ends with the hero trapped in a cave full of amethysts and brown sludge. The stories in Large Animals move through places as different as the run-down Atlantic City boardwalk, the Mojave Desert, and San Francisco in 1860, and are all told in Jess Arndt’s clipped and briskly original style; sentences riddled with verbs and images jolt like barbs on a wire.

This intensely corporeal collection is filled with characters who are at once solitary, yet constantly followed by a shadow. The fact that these secondary entities don’t provide any companionship for the protagonists only makes the loneliness they feel more poignant. Second selves and alter-egos are constantly coming into focus and vanishing into the periphery, where neither the characters nor the readers can reach them.

Also appearing and disappearing throughout this collection are genitalia: scars where breasts used to be and cocks that vanish when reality gets too close. At every moment an assumption about a character or a body can be completely overhauled by one of Arndt’s spare and sharp sentences. In her indelible debut, Arndt proves how both our bodies and our souls are equal in intangibility. By the end of the collection it’s impossible to believe a body could ever define or be defined at all.

Yana Makuwa

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Alfred A. Knopf
Out: 6/6/2017

Two decades after The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s gaze moves outward from a shattered family to a shattered world, but the story she tells is as intimate as the one that made her famous.

The novel primarily follows characters whose identities—whether gender, religion or caste—force them to live on the fringes of Indian society. There is Anjum, “Delhi’s most famous hijra [trans woman]”; Saddam Hussein, self-christened out of admiration for the dictator’s stoicism in the face of death; and Tilo, an architect (like Roy herself once was). As Anjum seeks community among other hijras, Saddam vows to avenge his father’s death, and Tilo’s love affairs unwittingly engulf her in political violence, their disparate lives become intertwined with one another’s and with that of India. Roy takes her readers throughout decades of history, from the Kashmiri struggle for independence in the 1990s to the rise of Hindu nationalism to present day.

The sprawling, ambitious narrative makes for occasionally uneven reading. It is jolting and disjointed in some parts and sluggish in others. But Roy’s prose is luminous, and her characters, though many, are vividly written. The novel’s strengths ultimately outshine its shortcomings.

Near the end of the novel, Tilo writes a poem asking “How to tell a shattered story?”, a task that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness accomplishes. It is an illumination into the inextricable nature of the personal and political. While mournful of past and present struggles, it remains hopeful that a better world may well be on its way.

Elizabeth Callen

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Harper
Out: 6/13/2017

Roxane Gay’s hotly anticipated memoir about her body, the politics and cruel realities of being fat, her early life, and her writing career, is a singular genre-crossing narrative marked by unflinching honesty and vulnerability. Hunger is constructed in short chapters that read more like micro-essays, the strongest of which are whip-smart personal and cultural observations that stand alone as some of Gay’s best nonfiction writing. Stand-outs are chapter three, which discusses the weight loss surgery her father pressures her to consider, and chapter 49, in which Gay discusses how modern feminists have embraced taking up public space without including fat people, who are shamed for appearing in public.

At times Gay’s plainspoken writing seems not merely raw but unfinished. Individual stories, phrases, and words are repeated frequently. While sometimes this works as necessary emphasis, as with Gay’s powerful use of the word “unruly,” it often feels unedited. The language she uses to describe her perception of her body is frequently contradictory—Gay describes being indifferent to her appearance but moments later will state she purposefully wanted to be bigger so she could be safer. She alternates between presenting the body as a fortress she created to protect an interior self, and stating that the body isn’t a fortress, that there is no division between a self and a body.

The book is at its most compelling when Gay dives into the contradictions of her body. In chapter 40, one of the best of the book, Gay writes, “My body is wildly undisciplined, and yet I deny myself nearly everything I desire.” Hunger is a unique memoir and a critical look at the body, and while not the best of Gay’s oeuvre (see the formidable Difficult Women), it will be well loved by her growing fan-base.

Celia Mattison

Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards by Michelle Tea
HarperElixir
Out: 6/13/2017

In her latest book, Michelle Tea leads readers through the tarot deck card by card, carefully explaining symbolism and providing interpretations pertinent to contemporary experience. Tea’s approach is studiously un-serious. Descriptions of cards come from the Rider-Waite deck—the most widely used deck, created in 1910—and sometimes differ from the images of cards in the book. This can be confusing, but Amanda Verwey’s illustrations provide space to exhibit a different kind of deck, one more aligned with modern sensibilities around gender, images of people that move outside of the traditional male/female binary. Tea peppers the text with personal anecdotes, making Modern Tarot as much an autobiographical self-help book, as it is a guide to the mystical world of tarot and ritual.

For each card, Tea provides directions for rituals to help new and experienced practitioners of tarot embody the purpose of the cards and overcome difficult situations. Connecting with the material environment and learning how to delineate personal and emotional space is a consistent theme. Tea has the ability to hone in on larger currents of energy and emotion to reveal the alienation abundant in contemporary life and politics. “People are turning to ancestral practices for a sense of enduring longevity, and comfort. To help stay sane in the midst of so much cultural insanity. To source a different kind of power in hopes of making changes both personal and political.” Modern Tarot functions well as an interpretive tool for tarot, but is just as useful for readers looking for tools to navigate the vagaries of modern existence.

Jenean Marie Gilmer

Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz
Counterpoint Press
Out: 7/11/2017

First published in 1979 and now back in print with Counterpoint, California queen Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage is a witty, unconventional coming-of-age story of surprising depth and pleasure.

Babitz’s heroine Jacaranda Leven starts out as dreamy surfer child, growing up with waves and sand on one side, her intellectual artist parents on the other. After she begins a surfboard painting enterprise and engages in some youthful affairs and a rock n’ roll misadventure, the narrative takes shape as Jacaranda becomes enveloped in a vicious social circle during her twenties. With a book manuscript in hand and her patience with her no longer charmed life at a breaking point, Jacaranda flies from Los Angeles to New York City to navigate the new and uncomfortable role of published author.

Though she struggles with alcoholism and general late-twenties upheaval (balancing imposter syndrome, artistic ambition, and the need to eventually buy furniture) Jacaranda is savvy, funny, and bracingly honest about her own shortcomings. The book’s warmth radiates from her wit and charm, as well as moments when young women recognize and affirm each other. Sex and Rage is a romp with substance—just beyond the descriptions of drinks and parties and devastating one-liners is a sweet story of a bright but messy young woman, making her own way. Nearly forty years after Sex and Rage’s initial publication, Jacaranda’s candid combination of moxie and sophistication feels fresh as a new generation of their private and public lives.

Daley Farr

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Viking
Out: 7/11/2017

What We Lose is a powerful debut from Zinzi Clemmons. Told in brief yet detailed vignettes, readers meet Thandi, a woman doing her best to cope with the loss of a loved one and an aimless sense of identity.

Growing up, Thandi’s parents are a constant and consistent presence in her life. The parenting style of Thandi’s South African mother is critical yet caring, and she gives Thandi her opinions on everything from men to hairstyles. This is in stark contrast to her mellow and gentle African-American father, who encourages his daughter’s interests and individuality.

For Thandi, the between-ness of heritage is a perpetual reminder of her differences and inability to fit in with her peers. She is a person without strong ties to anywhere, and it bothers her. For Thandi’s parents, the mixing of two cultures provides an opportunity for her to embrace both sides. They want their daughter to be proud of who and where she comes from.

While away at school, Thandi receives a call about her mother’s health: cancer. Soon after, the woman who taught her everything is gone. Shortly after her mother’s passing, Thandi discovers that she is pregnant, and she is forced to navigate the complexities of motherhood, culture, and community without her trusted advisor by her side.

What We Lose is unique in that nothing is lost in the brevity of its vignettes. Each section is short, but richly narrated. Clemmons offers a meaningful reflection on life, death, family and what we aspire to gain after it seems that we have lost everything.

Jordyn Taylor

 Refuge by Dina Nayeri
Riverhead
Out: 7/11/2017

Refuge is a multigenerational global immigration story, an ambitious and hefty pursuit that is softened in scope through deeply intimate character portraits and thoughtful exploration of the nuclear family unit.

Niloo is the only daughter of the larger-than-life Bahman Hamidi, a wealthy dentist living in the small Iranian village of Ardestoon. For the first eight years of her life, Niloo’s “Baba” is the love of her life. But when the Iranian “moral police” start harassing Niloo’s mother for her Christian faith and medical career, she flees Iran with Niloo and her son. Niloo doesn’t see her father for six years. He stays behind to continue running his dental practice and falls deeper and deeper into a love affair with opium.

The novel charts Niloo’s evolution from an Iranian daddy’s girl into a painfully insular and self-sufficient European sophisticate living with her French husband in Amsterdam. The four visits she shares with her father around the world (in locales including Oklahoma City, London, Madrid and Istanbul) between 1987 and 2008 serve as the metronome for a sweeping story that canvasses the globe as Niloo develops a grandiose global identity while privately grappling with her roots and relationships.

Refuge is a heart-splicing portrayal of the current refugee crisis that, through Niloo’s unexpected friendships, encompasses the experiences of refugees from so many different walks of life. These are people who, seeking asylum, arrive in countries that aren’t their own but must be made inhabitable, if not home.

Kaylen Ralph