Noted classicist and essayist Beard (S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome, 2015, etc.) looks deep into the past and hard at the present to examine the power of women—and more often, their powerlessness—in a world of impatient men.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren was far from the first woman to be silenced, publicly, by a man who did not want to hear what she had to say. As the author chronicles in the first of two lectures in this slim but potent volume, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, hushed his mother, Penelope, saying, “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all.” Penelope retreats to her quarters, although in fact she does have something important to say. Women who managed to make themselves heard in the ancient world usually did so with asterisks attached, as when Maesia, who defended herself in a Roman court, was successful because, a contemporary recorded, “she really had a man’s nature behind the appearance of a woman.” The classical inheritance has provided a template that holds to this day—and when not silenced, women are threatened and trolled, as Beard is every time she writes an essay for nonacademic readers. Silence links to power or the lack thereof; in this regard, argues the author, women do not recognize their achievements and the possibilities of self-governance—or, perhaps more to the point, “have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” In closing her provocative, thoughtful, and elegantly but lightly worn literary argument, Beard observes that were she writing her lectures afresh, she would “find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong,” since they have to be unimpeachably correct in order to be taken seriously—if then.
An urgent feminist cri de coeur, spot-on in its utterly reasonable plea that a woman “who dares to open her mouth in public” actually be given a hearing.
Ruminations about the power of 12 of life’s essential phrases and the difficulty in learning to say them out loud.
Corrigan (Glitter and Glue, 2013, etc.) may be a bestselling author, but she doesn’t always know the right thing to say, especially when it comes to the ones she loves most. In the collection’s titular essay, the author struggles to communicate with her teenage daughter until a childhood friend encourages her to do less talking and more listening, a strategy she implements when her father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. In “I Know,” Corrigan’s experience volunteering at a camp for children who have lost someone to cancer reminds her how comforting physical company—rather than apology—can be during times of tragedy and loss. “I Was Wrong,” the funniest entry in the collection, uses a dog, an unflushed toilet, and a parental meltdown to highlight the power and near-impossible difficulty of admitting personal fault. In the deeply affecting entry “Onward,” moving on from tragedy takes on a new weight. With heartfelt humor and penetrating insight, Corrigan uses the pain, anguish, failure, and occasional successes in her life to explore the vital connection between the words we say and the relationships we develop, both with the people around us and ourselves. Punctuated with her signature warmth and unflinching honesty, her introspective musings gush with empathy for every partner, parent, child, or friend who has said the wrong thing at the wrong time. At times laugh-out-loud funny but overwhelmingly bittersweet, this brief book spans time and experience to drive home a seemingly simple but significant message: finding the right words is a lifelong journey. Other phrases include “I Love You” and “No Words at All.”
Moving and deeply personal, Corrigan’s portraits of love and loss urge readers to speak more carefully and hold on tighter to the people they love.
A prizewinning French writer tells the story of how a Soviet meteorologist lionized by Stalin was wrongfully imprisoned and executed during the Great Purge of the 1930s.
Alexei Feodosievich Wangenheim (1881-1937) was a distinguished weather scientist. Appointed the first director of the Soviet Union’s Hydrometeorological Centre in 1929, he worked tirelessly to promote the interests of the Communist Party. He believed that the Soviet Union’s ascendancy as a world power lay in its ability to convert wind into electricity that would heat and light its vast terrain. As Rolin (Hotel Crystal, 2008, etc.) writes, “[Wagenheim’s] role in the construction of socialism was to help the revolutionary proletariat control the forces of Nature.” His work was recognized by Stalin, who praised the scientist as a national hero for his help in ensuring the success of one of the Soviets’ high altitude balloon experiments in 1933. Then a colleague implicated him in the activities of what he claimed was a counterrevolutionary organization within the Hydrometeorological Centre. In January 1934, authorities imprisoned an innocent and utterly dumbfounded Wangenheim—who was also a descendant of the hated Russian aristocracy—without ever telling him the exact nature of his crimes. The meteorologist was eventually sent to northwestern Russia, where he spent the last three years of his life doing forced labor in Stalin’s gulag system while stubbornly clinging to his socialist beliefs. Part of what makes this book so fascinating is the way Rolin, using letters and other historical documents, depicts the unswerving nature of Wangenheim’s faith in the Communist Party despite his mistreatment. The real horror is not so much the fate he and his gulag comrades suffered, but the extremes to which they were subjected before they even began to question the political system they held so dear. Timely and well-researched, the book is a reminder of the real, human cost of blind loyalty to totalitarian political ideologies.
Spirited, wry reflections on aging, literature, and America’s moral life.
Inspired by blogs that José Saramago wrote when he was in his 80s, the prolific, multiple award-winning Le Guin (Words Are My Matter: Writing About Life and Books, 2000-2015, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week, 2016, etc.) became a blogger herself. In an entertaining collection of more than 40 posts written from 2010 to 2015, she offers opinions on a wide range of topics: politics, age and youth, confounding questions from readers, creativity, public and private expressions of anger, a splendid opera by Philip Glass, the serene ritual of breakfast in Vienna, and, most charmingly, her cat. The collection begins with the author’s mystification over a questionnaire from Harvard, on the occasion of the 60th reunion of the graduating class of 1951. One question “really got me down,” she confesses: “In your spare time, what do you do?” There followed a list of 27 occupations, beginning with “Golf.” If spare time is the opposite of occupied time, Le Guin maintains that all of her time is “occupied by living.” And at the age of 81, when the piece was posted, she observed, “I have no time to spare.” She is at her most acerbic when writing about politics: in 2012 she learned that in 1947, President Truman asked the nation to give up meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays so that grain could be sent to starving Europeans. Such a request would be laughable today, she reflects sadly: “When did it become impossible for our government to ask its citizens to refrain from short-term gratification in order to serve a greater good?” Even in 2012 she felt in exile: “I used to live in a country that had a future.” Le Guin is at her most tender in posts about her cat, “a vivid little creature…utterly sweet and utterly nutty.”
Thoughtful musings from a deft and sharply insightful writer.
One of the country’s most gifted transgressive writers pens a love letter to her fellow misfits.
By all accounts, not least her own, Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan, 2017, etc.) has lived a difficult life. After a stillborn daughter, a suicide attempt, heroin addiction, three marriages, a DUI arrest, and a bout of homelessness, one would forgive the author for not sharing. But unlike her devastating memoir (The Chronology of Water, 2011), here she offers up her mistakes couched in a message of hope. Based on her 2016 TED Talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit,” it offers a bold, clear statement about the character of artists and an individual’s right to nonconformity. Early on, Yuknavitch delivers an insightful mantra: “If there’s one phrase that I should probably tattoo on my forehead it is this: I’m not the story you made of me.” The opening to the third chapter, “The Myth that Suffering Makes You Stronger,” is, “What a crock of shit.” You have to give it to the author for telling it like it is, at least for her. Along the way, she chronicles her interviews with other writers, artists, friends, and nonconformists, offering a more global portrait of what it’s like to live outside traditional social frameworks. In “The Misfit’s Journey, or, Why the Hero’s Journey Bites,” she offers a searing prosecution of an old archetypal chestnut: “Here’s another secret: a lot of us are also secretly empathizing with the so-called villain. I’ve been arrested. I’ve gone to jail and rehab. I’m no hero. But every fall I’ve taken has shown me how to be a better person. Profoundly.” Far from being an advice manual, the book is more of an enlightened lesson in forgiving one’s self and moving forward: “News flash! I might fuck up again. As a matter of fact, I’m quite certain I will. But it will not mean I’m nothing.”
This short story collection from a beloved British author, published in the U.K. in 1995 but only now receiving a U.S. release, glimmers like found treasure—or a mirage.
The princess in this insightful, imaginative, and wryly clever collection’s title story, “The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism,” may or may not be imprisoned in the circular tower room in which she lives in solitude, spending her time (of which she has no sense) placidly reading books on her bed, generally unaware of and remarkably incurious about the world outside, which she can glimpse from her small window. It is only after one soldier and then another turn up to pierce and fragment the innocent solitude of her existence—bringing food, a mirror, and a calendar, to satisfy their own pleasure—that she comes to perceive time and disappointment, to see herself as they do and consequently to disappear. Among the ideas percolating in this quirky, disquieting fairy tale is the way a sense of loss can attend the moment of being found. Readers just discovering Diski (In Gratitude, 2016, etc.), who died from cancer in 2016, through the dozen stories in this collection may perceive this acutely—the searing sense of finding her funny, flinty voice just as it has disappeared. Yet for Diski devotees existing and new, the far-ranging work the author has left behind here is something to savor. In “Shit and Gold,” she offers a bold and naughty reimagining of “Rumpelstiltskin” in which the upwardly mobile miller’s daughter takes action to create a far more fulfilling fate for herself and the strangely named fellow with the helpful ability to spin straw into precious metal. (The miller’s daughter, it so happens, has her talents, too.) In “Housewife,” she steams things up with the story of two people swept up in, but not away by, a ravenous extramarital affair. In “Bath Time,” she brings us a woman in determined pursuit of the perfect bath. Yes, only that. But in Diski’s able hands the modest plot yields riches, shedding glinty light on dreams deferred, pleasures denied, the way we can, if we are single-minded enough, take the straw of everyday life and turn it into gold.
Regal, raunchy, revealing—the stories in this collection leave a lasting impression.
A lonely housewife gets a new lease on life in the strong, green arms of a sea monster.
Thanks to the support of writers like Daniel Handler and Rivka Galchen, who introduces this novella, the marvelous Ingalls (Three Masquerades, 2017, etc.) has been rescued from obscurity with reissues of her books. Mrs. Caliban was originally published in 1982 to raves that compared it to works by Edgar Allan Poe, David Lynch, Richard Yates, and Angela Carter, not to mention E.T., King Kong, and “Beauty and the Beast”—which only shows how sui generis it really is. We meet the very dear character Dorothy Caliban at home, sending her husband, Fred, off to work. He will be late, he says, not even troubling to come up with an excuse for why. After the death of their young son, followed by a miscarriage, her despair, his affair, and, finally, the running-over of their Jack Russell terrier, this marriage is more of a house-sharing arrangement than any comfort to anyone. Dorothy has one great friend, Estelle, who draws out “other people’s subversive instincts,” offering sherry and laughter to break up the long afternoons, but it’s not enough. Then, the very evening after she hears a radio report of a monster who has killed two people and escaped from the facility where he was being held, her screen door opens and a 6-foot-7-inch creature, with the bulging forehead and flat nose of a frog and the body of an attractively hunky man, shoulders his way in and stares straight into her face. “Help me,” he says. “They will kill me. I have suffered so much already.” His name is Larry, he loves avocados, he is a tireless and attentive lover—and Fred is home so little, he doesn’t even notice that Dorothy's amphibian boyfriend is living in their guest room. The plot unfolds brilliantly and heartbreakingly from there.
The love story is a delight, the social commentary sharp, the writing funny and fun—and yet the sorrow, even bitterness, at the core of this book about our perfidious species is inescapable and profound. Where is the movie?
A lonely woman in New York spends her days guzzling merlot, popping pills, and spying on the neighbors—until something she sees sucks her into a vortex of terror.
“The Miller home across the street—abandon hope, all ye who enter here—is one of five townhouses that I can survey from the south-facing windows of my own.” A new family is moving in on her Harlem street, and Dr. Anna Fox already knows their names, employment histories, how much they paid for their house, and anything else you can find out using a search engine. Following a mysterious accident, Anna is suffering from agoraphobia so severe that she hasn't left her house in months. She speaks to her husband and daughter on the phone—they've moved out because "the doctors say too much contact isn't healthy"—and conducts her relationships with her neighbors wholly through the zoom lens of her Nikon D5500. As she explains to fellow sufferers in her online support group, food and medication (not to mention cases of wine) can be delivered to your door; your housecleaner can take out the trash. Anna’s psychiatrist and physical therapist make house calls; a tenant in her basement pinch-hits as a handyman. To fight boredom, she’s got online chess and a huge collection of DVDs; she has most of Hitchcock memorized. Both the game of chess and noir movie plots—Rear Window, in particular—will become spookily apt metaphors for the events that unfold when the teenage son of her new neighbors knocks on her door to deliver a gift from his mother. Not long after, his mother herself shows up…and then Anna witnesses something almost too shocking to be real happening in their living room. Boredom won’t be a problem any longer.
Crackling with tension, and the sound of pages turning, as twist after twist sweeps away each hypothesis you come up with about what happened in Anna’s past and what fresh hell is unfolding now.