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Alice Sebold was raped and beaten near her dorm during her freshman year at Syracuse and police told her she was lucky she hadn’t been murdered.
Alice was so lucky that every time she told someone what happened to her, she changed in their eyes and a little piece of who she was before it happened fell away, until she was scared she’d never get back to being that person.
Alice was lucky she not only ran into her rapist again, but he recognized her and knew he had gotten away with what he did. She failed to recognize him in a lineup but eventually he was convicted and sent to prison. Soon after he was in jail, someone broke into her home and raped her roommate. Alice was lucky enough to relive her own trauma all over again.
Alice was raped in 1981 and wrote her memoir in 1999, years before the #MeToo movement. She wanted other people who were raped to know they were not alone, although their experiences may have been different.
We’re lucky to have this book.
(It’s better than Lovely Bones.)
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Before I read Seabiscuit, I read Hillenbrand’s biography of runner and World War II hero Louis Zamparini, Unbroken. And before I read Unbroken, I read a fascinating essay she wrote in The New Yorker about her diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. She started writing about horses because the magazine Equus was the only place with forgiving deadlines (meaning she could work on a story for months).
I knew nothing about horses before I read this book. I’ve only seen one or two races in person: at Saratoga racetrack, the week before the opening day of the season. The horses were huge, beautiful and delicate, especially around the legs. Their bodies gleamed with sweat after each race and they were panting loudly.
Seabiscuit, who got more newspaper ink than Hitler or Mussolini in 1938, was not only a classic underdog himself, but so were his owner, his trainer and his jockey. It was like the Miracle on Ice multiplied by the 2004 Boston Red Sox, to the Rudy power.
What makes this (meticulously detailed) book so compelling is Hillenbrand’s prose. It’s clear, concise and above all, entertaining. It’s also like a big thank-you note for the people who took a chance on her as a writer.
I’m cheating here, because Olive Kitteredge isn’t really a novel, but a series of connected stories, not in chronological order, featuring Olive as either a major or supporting character.
In the stories, which exquisitely detail small-town life, Olive is described as difficult and abrasive, yet she comforts people in pain: she convinces a former student who is suicidal not to go through with what he’s planning; she tries to help a neighbor with anorexia to get the proper treatment; she cares for her husband, who’s left nearly lifeless after a stoke. Eventually, after her husband’s death, she finds love again.
And yet: she takes petty revenge on her future daughter-in-law after overhearing her complain about Olive’s dress. When her son marries again, Olive resents being asked to help out his new wife. Before his stroke, her husband has an emotional affair with an employee and at this stage of their marriage merely tolerates Olive, who picks a wicked fight with him in the ER (unrelated to his stroke).
Much like Anne Tyler at her best, Elizabeth Strout raises the mundane to the extraordinary. Olive is a typical complicated woman, wife and mother, but under Strout’s pen, she’s as big and as bright as the sun. This book deservedly won the Pulitzer, and it was adapted into an award-winning miniseries featuring the fabulous Frances McDormand as Olive. (I haven’t seen it, but McDormand is up there with Olivia Colman in Online Offal’s List of Relatable Actresses.)
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Within the span of 18 months or so, the writer Joan Didion lost her husband (quite suddenly) and her daughter (a bit more gradually but still, quite unexpected). The Year of Magical Thinking is her memoir of grieving her husband. Another book, Blue Nights, is devoted to the death of her daughter.
Joan and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote movies together. In the same apartment, in what’s lovingly described as a nearly symbiotic—or, in less fancy terms, co-dependent—relationship. Don’t get me wrong, she has an impressive amount of work (novels, articles, essays) with solely her name on it. And if you google her and look at photos of her, you’ll see how she has a nearly undefinable aura of coolness and chic, from her youth until today.
That attitude extends to her writing as well, and even though she’s obviously in so much pain from losing a life and creative partner, she’s just so extremely elegant and serene about it, even in her anger: her husband had a massive heart attack that largely could have been prevented with a more healthful diet and exercise. I can tell that writing’s what she was born to do, and it’s as much an activity of survival as it is a way to cope with such colossal loss.
I’ve worked at a hospice with a thriving bereavement program, and I’ve learned that families who grieve, for the most part, agonize about the first anniversary of their loved one’s death, but they can’t really explain why. I think we’re conditioned to recognize yearly events, and death is no exception. But I also believe that experiencing that date a year later brings about a certain kind of remorseless finality, no matter how they’ve prepared for it.
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So before I talk about Bone Clocks I need to talk about Cloud Atlas, which was my first introduction to David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas, which was later made into a film by the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame), is a series of six stories written in different styles which are only tangentially related. A character with a star on the ankle appears in each one. That doesn’t sound so bad, except each story is cut in half, until the sixth, which is the only one presented uninterrupted. So, chronologically, it’s first half of stories 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then all of the sixth, then the second half of stories 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. It was an incredibly arduous process, and to make matters worse, I read the book with a potentially new book club and it didn’t work out. It’s pretty hard for me to divorce a book from the experience and timing of me reading the book.
I had all that running through my head when I picked up Bone Clocks.
This story, about a teenage girl and the voices she hears, is also about interconnectedness, like Cloud Atlas. The voices—and their enemies—show up in different places and decades throughout the world. They affect everyone in the girl’s life, from her immediate family to her future relatives. At the risk of sounding like a reverse snob, this novel is a lot more accessible than Cloud Atlas, whose overly cerebral form and structure smother the story itself.
Bone Clocks is a creative, thought-provoking novel, and I’m glad I overcame Cloud Atlas to appreciate it.
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Southern Baptist and evangelical Nathan Price brings his wife and four daughters to the Congo for a year of missionary work, with the hopes of converting Northern Congolese men to Christianity. Together, the family faces culture shock, corruption, and tragedy during their year in Africa. Narrated by all the Price women, the novel explores the importance of language—”Tata Jesus is bangala!” simultaneously means “Father Jesus is precious and dear” and “Jesus is Poisonwood”— and independence in post-colonial Africa. By all accounts, Nathan Price fails as a missionary, although their year there is transformational.
I’m one of four daughters myself, and Kingsolver hits all the right notes in terms of their relationships with each other. I’m deeply distrustful of religion in general and missionaries in particular, and this book reinforces my beliefs.
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This book, loosely based on Kurt Vonnegut’s own experiences in World War II, uses time travel and biting humor to illustrate, rather than disguise, the brutal realities of war and the trauma soldiers bring home with them. (I’m describing it chronologically here but the story is told through flashbacks, and jumps through time and space.)
An anti-war chaplain, Billy Pilgrim finds himself captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge. His fellow prisoners of war die of starvation and disease, but Billy hangs on long enough for his captors to transfer him and four others to Dresden. There, hidden in the basement of a slaughterhouse, they survive two days of sustained Allied bombing that devastates the city.
After returning home, Billy spends some time in a psychiatric hospital where he begins to read science fiction. He marries and lives a relatively normal life until the day before his daughter’s wedding, when he’s abducted and taken to a planet light years away. He lives in a zoo with a human woman, and they fall in love and have a daughter.
Billy returns to Earth, and is injured in a plane crash. In the hospital, he shares a room with a professor who argues that the Dresden bombing was necessary, despite the loss of innocent life. Billy becomes increasingly eccentric, sharing his experiences on the other planet on radio stations and in baseball stadiums. He’s assassinated by a fellow veteran.
This novel was published in 1969, but it feels modern (and sort of hopeless) that we continue to fall well short of providing veterans the care (especially mental healthcare) they really need to help them cope with the hell of war.