Thoughts on reading, writing and social justice from Lynn Kanter, author of Her Own Vietnam. Join the conversation!
Thoughts on reading, writing and social justice from Lynn Kanter, author of Her Own Vietnam. Join the conversation!
It’s summer! Time to read a few good books. Hope you will find some appealing choices among these books I’ve read in 2019. What have you read lately that you can’t stop talking about?
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Fabulous novel about the lives of women on the isolated Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Two young sisters are kidnapped from the busy center of the peninsula’s largest city, and the widening circle of people touched by their disappearance creates the web-like structure for this mesmerizing novel. The book takes place in the present day, but Kamchatka’s history – recently emerged from Communism, and still struggling with tensions between Russians and the indigenous Northern people who herd reindeer – and geography play as large a role in the plot as do cellphones.
The Dreamers: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker
In an idyllic, affluent town in California, students at the local college keep falling asleep and not waking up. Some die but others sleep on. Soon the gentle epidemic spreads, and the town is quarantined from the rest of the world. I enjoyed the book but appreciated her previous novel, The Age of Miracles, much more.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
I will read almost anything Sigrid Nunez writes. This novel is about a woman whose best friend—they are both writers in the upper stratosphere of the literary world – kills himself, and leaves his gigantic Great Dane to live with her in her 500-square-foot, no-pets-allowed apartment in New York City. A witty and erudite consideration of love, grief, loyalty, literature, and dog behaviors.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
A teenage girl and her parents move to rural Alaska in the 1970s. Her father, a violent and abusive alcoholic, has failed in every job and every city, and Alaska is the end of the road literally and figuratively for this family. We watch the girl grow up to love the wilderness which, despite its peril, is much safer than her own home. The author does a wonderful job of revealing the daily tasks and existential challenges of homesteading in rural Alaska, and of portraying a fractured family and a daughter who realizes, almost too late, that her mother never will be able to leave her dangerous husband.
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
Two college students who never really fit in at their elite university find a home with each other – and with the other members of a cult and its beguiling, unpredictable leader. Secrets, revelations, and dangers exert their own power on these two students who have thrown off their histories and sought, with varying success, to inhabit frightening new truths for themselves.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
In modern-day Prague, a British woman who lives an ascetic life as a translator is introduced to the myth of Melmoth, the loneliest woman on earth, doomed to perpetually travel the world and witness its wrongs. As the translator feverishly researches this figure, who appears in many cultures, languages and centuries, she begins to realize that she too is haunted by Melmoth, and perhaps shares Melmoth’s destiny to bear witness to her century’s atrocities.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
A close-up examination of the intense and fluctuating relationship between two young people in Ireland – she a loner and outsider, he a popular athlete – who become lovers in high school and again in college, when their roles have reversed. These two can tell each other anything except, it appears, how they really feel.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A fast-moving novel that delves into the lives and characters of one Korean family over the course of 70 eventful years. Fascinating historical and cultural detail, particularly about the lives of women, with a plot that keeps unspooling into the present day.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. It begins 20 years after a fast-moving flu has killed 99 percent of the world’s population, a loss so devastating the survivors started counting time anew, at Year 1. The novel sways back and forth in time, exploring the pre-plague lives of the flu survivors and their friends and families, who took for granted such miracles as electricity and the Internet, and the post-pandemic experiences of people trying to create a new kind of civilization to replace the one that was lost. At the heart of the story are the members of a troupe of performers – a symphony plus Shakespeare theater – who, in the years after the flu, travel the countryside to perform in small towns and settlements. While I wouldn’t want to live in the devastated world the novel creates, I was sorry to leave it and say goodbye to its compelling characters and its examination of the roles we play in each other’s lives, both onstage and off.
Still Life with Monkey by Katharine Weber
Did you know that tiny Capuchin monkeys are trained to serve as assistants to disabled people? Neither did the couple at the heart of this book, until they had to learn. Duncan survives a terrible car accident that kills his passenger, and must manage to adjust to a life where he can feel and control only a few fingers on one hand. His wife Laura was not in the car but was the third victim. She welcomes the help and liveliness of Ottoline, the monkey who can help Duncan achieve impossible tasks such as turning the page of a book or stirring his coffee. The situation is grim, but Weber brings her trademark dry wit and incisive intellect to the endeavor.
Transcription: A Novel by Kate Atkinson
In WWII England, a young woman is recruited, somewhat against her will, into MI5. It’s mostly administrative work, with some thrilling and terrifying forays into actual espionage. After the war, during a long career at the BBC, she finds that the hold MI5 has on its agents never ends, and she can’t escape the sense that she isn’t sure which side anyone is truly on.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
In 1830, a young boy born into slavery on a plantation in Barbados is lifted – literally – beyond the small, brutal world he’s known by the brother of the man who owns the plantation and therefore, the boy. The brother, a scientist, has chosen George Washington Black because the boy is the right size and weight to serve as ballast in the hot air balloon the brother is trying to build, and in which they make their escape from the plantation. From there Wash, as he’s known, serves as observer and narrator, taking the reader on the extraordinary journey of his life, from Barbados to Virginia to Antarctica to Canada and beyond, giving us a view of his mid-19thcentury world of scientific ideas and a glimpse of what it’s like to be no longer in bondage yet never fully free.
The Witch Elm by Tana French
This author usually writes detective mysteries that have beautiful language and deep psychological insights. This novel has a murder and a mystery and family secrets galore, but at heart it’s a thoughtful exploration of the power of privilege.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
A sage and searing novel based on true events. In a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, the women and girls discover that the injuries and dizziness they’ve been suffering are not the work of demons but of the men in their tiny, isolated community. The women are offered two choices by the religious leader of their patriarchal society: forgive the men, or leave. None of the women can read, write, or follow a map. They don’t speak Spanish or even English; they speak an old German language used only by Mennonites. The men who for months have drugged and raped the women and girls are the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers of the community. Faced with this almost unimaginable – yet true – situation, the women gather in a hayloft over several days to decide what to do. Their discussion comprises this brief, powerful novel.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the bizarre rise and fall of Theranos, a company that claimed to revolutionize blood-testing and that succeeded in making a media darling and a billionaire out of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes – before it was revealed that the product and the company were frauds.
Be With Me Always by Randon Billings Noble
A collection of varied, lapidary essays about the things that haunt us, from almost-loves to bodily damage to the hidden meanings of the very words we use to express our longings and satisfactions. I suggest savoring these essays like fine chocolates, one per night. (Full disclosure: Randon is a friend.)
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
The author grew up in a white family living in rural poverty in Kansas. Through this memoir – weirdly addressed to a child she decided never to have – she seeks to highlight the causes and costs of this kind of white poverty, and reveal in gritty detail what this precarious, relentlessly arduous way of life is like.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays by Tyrese Coleman
As you can tell by the title, it’s hard to know how to characterize this collection of powerful and painful – yet often witty – stories about growing up black and female. Self-knowledge comes with a price, but closing her eyes is even more costly for a girl named T who grows into a woman who knows too much yet has too many questions for a world where women like her are constantly being told who and how to be.
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
After taking a DNA test on a whim, writer Dani Shapiro learned that her father, the center of her universe as a child and the pillar of her family, was not her father. She was raised as a Jew in an Orthodox family, attended shul and yeshiva, yet was haunted all her life by people, including in her own family, telling her she didn’t look Jewish. Now in her 50s, a mother herself, Shapiro understands why she has always felt different. With her parents dead and no relatives to ask, a deeply shaken Shapiro sets out to find the truth about her own history.
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
In the early 2000s, the feminist journalist Susan Faludi went to Hungary to visit her father, a violent, controlling man from whom she’d been estranged for years. After living in the U.S. for decades, he had returned to his home country of Budapest – where he’d hidden from the Nazis as a boy – and decided to become his “true” self: a woman. Faludi finds that Stefánie is just as extreme as Steven had been, embracing all of the feminine roles and stereotypes that Faludi had spent her life overturning. Through years of visits and emails, Faludi learns more – but never enough – about this maddening, secretive, self-aggrandizing, but very human parent.
Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri
A brief, greeting card of a book composed of advice from Palmieri to the first woman president – whoever she will be – and based on the author’s experience in the Clinton and Obama White House and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Worthwhile mostly for a few backstage glimpses of these campaigns.
What should I read next? Please share your recommendations.
It already feels like 2018 was a loooong time ago, but here it is: the list of books I read in 2018. Fiction comes first, followed by nonfiction.
Hope you find some good reading choices here. And send me your recommendations!
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Nothing is better than feeling so stunned by a novel’s power and originality that you linger over the last page, reluctant to leave the world the book has created. This is such a novel. Elfrieda and Yolandi are two sisters who grew up in a Mennonite community in the plains of Manitoba, Canada. They and their mother are far too lively for the conservative community; the elders think they read too many books, and are horrified when it becomes clear that Elfrieda is a piano prodigy. The girls grow up, move to the city and embark on their adult lives: Elfie as a world-class concert pianist, and Yoli as a writer and mother. They live in the modern world but come from a death-haunted history with suicides on all branches of the family tree. Despite her talent, success and loving family, the one thing Elfrieda yearns for is to die. And she wants Yoli to help her, although Yoli is desperate to keep her sister alive. The thing is, this novel is hilarious even as it shreds your heart. From the sisters to the mother to the aunts, this is one of the most lively and unique fictional families I’ve encountered. The language is extraordinary; you could study it for a long time before figuring out how Toews manages to be so funny and so searing at the same time.
On this Veterans’ Day, let’s spare a thought for the forgotten veterans: the women who served in Vietnam—overlooked by the military while they served in-country; scorned by their neighbors; neglected by their government when they returned.
“Little is known about the long-term health and mental health status of women Vietnam Era Veterans,” the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs wrote. This was in 2011, nearly 40 years after the war. “For many of these women, the effects of this war are still present in their daily lives.”
About 90% of them were nurses.
The names of eight of them are on the Vietnam Wall.
The most famous woman who served in Vietnam was fictional: Colleen McMurphy, the character Dana Delany played in the TV series “China Beach.”
But she was based on the stories and memories of a real person: Lynda Van Devanter, who wrote Home Before Morning, the first and perhaps most scorching memoir by a military nurse of her time in Vietnam.
I spent over a decade researching the women who had served in Vietnam, interviewing them, listening to their stories. The most shocking thing I learned is that a large number of them had never told anyone about their experiences. Not a parent, not a best friend, not a spouse.
“I don’t speak about Vietnam, and most people in my world don’t even realize I’m a veteran,” a nurse named Chris Banigan, who had served two tours, told me. “I prefer it that way.”
Based on these years of immersion, I wrote a novel, Her Own Vietnam. It is the story of two Army nurses who served in Vietnam, one white and one African American, who reconnect 30 years later to consider what it truly means to survive a war.
In the four years since the novel was published, and indeed during most of the years preceding it, the U.S. has been in a state of perpetual war. The number of active-duty military members in the U.S. has remained at around 1.3 million, with another 800,000 or so in the reserves. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the number of women in the military has hovered at around 200,000 to 250,000 per year. The share of women among the U.S. veteran population is projected to increase from 9.4% in 2015 to 16.3% in 2043.
Long ago the United States shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. We sell products, but for the most part we no longer make them. The one thing we produce with regularity is veterans.
Today is for them. All of them, even the ones we usually forget.
Do you ever wish you could have a hand in shaping the future? You can. It’s called voting. And now’s the time.
Are you registered to vote? If not, it’s easy to do. Find out how at https://vote.gov/.
And hurry – the window to register in many states closes soon. Check for your state’s deadline here.
You’re already registered? That’s great. But are you sure you’re still registered?
Many states are purging tens of thousands of registered voters from the rolls – mainly people of color, low-income people, and young people.
Today I’m joining with published writers across the country to urge readers to register and vote. It’s never been more important.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask Karen Joy Fowler, Tayari Jones, Meg Waite Clayton, Celeste Ng, Caroline Leavitt, Soniah Kamal – pretty much any novelist you admire. They’ll all tell you the same thing:
I’ve been looking for a book that I could immerse myself in and forget the world. I didn’t want to have to worry about the characters, or fume at the injustices they encountered, or fear for their futures; I do enough of that with the daily news.
Things didn’t work out exactly as planned.