The Canon: Books to Read in June

Memoirs of food and fashion, Syrian voices, and literary erotica.

by Emily Bergslien, Ann Mayhew, Kaylen Ralph, and Sarah Waller

I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen
YesYes Books
Out: 3/15/2017

I’m So Fine: A list of Famous Men & What I Had On is a sartorial memoir told through a non-chronological series of poems. Although Khadijah Queen’s narratives are framed around her interactions with “famous men,” from Hollywood Walk of Fame-ers (Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding Jr.) to the infamous icons (Tupac, The Rock) the real magic of I’m So Fine is the glimpse it gives into the internal lives of women, a close read on the subtleties that exist in interactions between a man a woman. Who holds the power? And how can the tables be reversed?

The non-chronological ordering of Queen’s poems renders a sense of unexpected continuity, despite constantly jumping from her adolescence to her present, with stops along the way at each life stage. As we witness Queen’s attempts to retain and regain power in her encounters with famous men, her love affair with fashion emerges in marvelous, materialistic detail, most notably in a rare story about meeting a famous woman — Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in August 1974 — framed within a narrative about never meeting Bill Cosby (whom Johnson would later accuse of drugging her before attempting assault). “I think my sister and I had on matching Hawaiian shirts that day and wore them tucked in I didn’t wear that shirt again & not long after that I fell in love with fashion and asked my dad to start buying me issues of Vogue.”

The rest is history.

Kaylen Ralph
No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
Out: 4/4/2017Stephanie Powell Watts examines the so-called American dream through a poor, working-class Black Southern community in her monumental debut novel.

The homecoming of JJ Ferguson — a Gatsby-esque character, insofar as he is newly rich, and has returned to woo his high school love — to Pinewood, North Carolina, aligns with the boiling over of familial tensions in the extended Ross family, namely concerning Ava (the woman JJ has his eyes on) and her mother Sylvia. Ava and Sylvia both have to come to terms with their unfaithful husbands and their relationships to children — specifically, Ava’s lack of a child, and Sylvia’s grief from her deceased son.

Watts paints a compelling portrait of these characters, their relationships, and their environment, and subsequently touches upon a broad range of themes such as class, racism, and mother-daughter relationships without being overbearing. The prose is sharp and exquisite, unique to its characters and full of truth bombs.

Like Gatsby, No One deals with how we connect with the past.  The novel is peppered with reflections of when Pinewood was under Jim Crow law, focusing specifically on Simmy’s, a popular burger joint remembered for its especially strict segregation. Near the end of the novel, residents gather to watch as Simmy’s finally close its doors; as they leave, “[they] drive on with the sure-feeling there is something important that [they] have forgotten.”

Unlike Jay Gatsby, who dwells in the past, Ava, JJ, Sylvia, and the other characters in this novel strive to reclaim pasts they have been trying to forget — to find what is important, reconcile it, and move forward toward fulfilling their personal American dreams.

Ann Mayhew
Give a Girl a Knife by Amy Thielen
Clarkson Potter
Out: 5/16/2017In Give a Girl a Knife, chef Amy Thielen details her path through early adulthood and her dual inspirations of New York City haute cuisine and small-town Midwestern cooking.

A Northern Minnesota native, Thielen moved in with her boyfriend Aaron at age 21 to the one-room log cabin he had built himself in the woods, “best described to others for what it lacked,” including running water, electricity, and other modern amenities. Here Thielen deepened her connection with food, already in place thanks to her mother, by planting and tending to an abundant garden. But soon Thielen began to feel like her cooking skills had reached a standstill — so she and Aaron moved to New York City where she could attend cooking school and eventually work in some of the best restaurant kitchens in the city.

Throughout her journey, Thielen describes the competitive, sexist atmosphere in fine dining, the difficulties of life in the backwoods and in unsavory Brooklyn neighborhoods, her relationship with her mother, and her occasionally unhealthy relationship with food at an earlier age. She moves from Minnesota to New York and back; the book is a tribute to the Midwest: “I was a proud Midwesterner, and yet here I was, making purees instead of stews … In order to move forward, I had to move a few steps back.”

The chronology of the memoir isn’t always straightforward, which is at times disorienting, but Thielen’s storytelling abilities are as strong as her cooking, and the end result is a heartwarming and inspiring portrait of an ambitious, daring woman.

Ann Mayhew
Boundless by Jillian Tamaki
Drawn & Quarterly
Out: 5/30/2017Jillian Tamaki’s new collection of short comics Boundless veers melancholic and surreal. “Bed Bugs” begins with the dual closure of an affair and a bed bug infestation, while the titular story “Boundless” moves between animal narrators over a series of double-page spreads ending with a housefly who, before it can finish its meditation on life, death, and Thomas Hobbes, perishes between the pages of a library book.

Tamaki seems most comfortable with strange and sometimes nihilistic humor, as in her previous work Supermutant Magic Academy (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015); even the most mundane stories in Boundless embrace the fantastic. Each of the stories probes but refuses to define the boundaries of social construction and the self. Surely it is no stranger to contemplate eating a donut in the park, as in “World-Class City,” than it is to find the Facebook profile of your doppelganger, as in “1.Jenny.” Both require a projection of the idea one has of one’s abilities, appearance, and personality.

Boundless requires this work of the reader, introspective and even physical. “World-Class City” is best read with the book turned 90 degrees and held at arm’s length, asking not just the reader’s physical participation, but also their answers to a series of questions: “Do you want to be my friend?”  “Do you want to look at art at 2 AM?”

Eating a donut in the park is pleasant, if banal. To wonder whether you could eat it, what kind of person would, whether you are that person, and what it might look like to others is to question your selfhood.

Emily Bergslien

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman
Custom House
Out: 6/6/2017

For the past four years, Wendy Pearlman, a professor at Northwestern University focusing on Middle East politics, has been conducting interviews with Syrian women, men, and children from all walks of life. In this extraordinary collection of testimonies, Pearlman presents these stories and gives voice to people who are often silenced.

The collection begins with a comprehensive introduction to the Syrian Civil War, along with Pearlman’s goals for this book. Pearlman acknowledges what the book doesn’t accomplish: the voices within do not reflect all Syrians, especially those who support Assad. She also identifies all of her interviewees, explaining who they are and when she interviewed them. As Pearlman points out, the American media tends to portray Syrians as victims to be pitied or as hostile threats to our way of life, but not as human beings with agency. She spoke to Syrians about their experiences from before the demonstrations began and up to those currently living as refugees.

After the introduction, Pearlman takes backstage. Besides translation into English, the stories are presented as they were told to Pearlman, without her interpretation. The Syrians within speak for themselves.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled is heartbreaking and horrifying (torture is not glossed over). Reading these people describe standing up to abuse and oppression is also incredibly moving. Cherin, a mother from Aleppo, said, “Before the revolution, I thought that Syria was for Assad. … When the revolution began, I discovered that Syria was my country.”

As a vital and powerful document of suppressed perspectives, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled should be required reading for not just all Americans, but everyone.

Ann Mayhew

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
William Morrow
Out: 6/13/2017Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal is a novel that stunningly balances social commentary and sexy comedy, where women find their voices after having always lived in the shadow of their traditional husbands and fathers.

The story follows Nikki, a young woman grappling with the guilt of having left her family’s conservative Punjabi traditions for a more liberal life. Strapped for cash, she signs up to teach a creative writing course to widows at the temple in Southall, a Punjabi community in London. Surprised to find the widows are illiterate but refuse to learn, Nikki instead discovers herself leading a support group of women who begin to share their most passionate memories and erotic fantasies. Together their imaginations create a story collection they dream of publishing, complete with entertaining vegetable names in place of genitalia. But because of the community’s strict honor code and a group of young men policing women into their roles, Nikki’s “class” becomes the only safe haven for these widows to be themselves.

Jaswal perfectly captures Nikki’s desire for feminism over traditional values, and how her friendship with these Punjabi widows opens her mind; as they share their stories, Nikki realizes these women’s desires were never dampened by their traditions.

Erotic Stories is smart and provocative, juxtaposed with dark suspense. It reads effortlessly and remains relevant, and Jaswal’s vibrant characters and their wild stories bridge a gap between literary fiction and erotica, giving us hope in an often-maligned genre.

Sarah Waller