I want to share with you two magnificent books I read recently. One I knew would be excellent, because I had read the author’s previous novel. The other was my first experience with the author, and her book’s power took me by surprise. Let’s start with the surprise.
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, by Sonya Huber, blew me away. It’s a set of essays about living with the chronic pain of Huber’s rheumatoid disease, a life-altering condition that is for the most part invisible to others. She describes pain in ways that are lyrical and utterly original: “Pain folds the minutes into fascinating origami constructions with its long fingers.” And, “Pain is a windshield with nerves, and I have to scrape it raw to see beyond myself.”
Huber was 38 when the constant pain began, a college professor and single mother. It took her years to accept that this was her new reality. “If I were a pie chart,” she writes, “I’d be maybe 15 percent pain. The weirdest and most difficult thing I do each day is to try not to freak out about that.”
The people around Huber freak out enough. She writes that if she mentions her pain to her friends and colleagues, they wince as if she is the one hurting them. Huber cogently discusses the politics of pain, the way the medical profession does not know how to treat or even to hear chronic pain sufferers, the majority of whom are women. In a list of facts, she tells us, “Specialists I have visited for a condition whose primary symptom is chronic pain who did not ask me a single question about how I coped with chronic pain: 7.”
And even as Huber examines the grammar of disease, or how writers across the centuries have addressed the conundrum of pain, she takes a moment to remind us of the conditions under which she’s writing the very essay we’re reading. “Right now I’m in the kind of pain that would send a ‘normal’ person to the E.R., wild-eyed,” she says as an aside. Yet the book is full of humor, with section titles such as “Bitchiness as Treatment Protocol” and “The Joy of Not Cooking.”
You don’t need to be particularly interested in pain or illness to be wowed by this book. Read it to appreciate the fresh, sharp-edged writing, or the thoughtful insights into a world no one wants to inhabit, though many of us will.
I loved Laura McBride’s first novel, We Are Called to Rise. (By the way, this would make an excellent all-purpose protest sign for those of us who go to lots of demonstrations.) McBride’s gifts as a storyteller are on even more powerful display in ‘Round Midnight.
The novel, set in Las Vegas, introduces us to four distinct and multi-faceted women who appear to have little in common. Then the book shines its light on the web of history and destiny that binds them together.
At the center of this web is June Stein, the passionate and charismatic woman who, with her secretive husband Del, runs the El Capitan casino and launches a nightclub called the Midnight Room. The club is a blazing success in the booming Las Vegas of the 1950s and 1960s, due largely to its talented but troubled headline singer, an African American man named Eddie Knox. In a city built on chance, June has the misfortune to fall in love with Eddie at a time when romance between a black man and a white woman could mean death for them both.
McBride introduces her characters with chapter titles reminiscent of Tarot cards; June, for example, is The One Who Falls in Love. The One Who Gets Lucky is Honorata, a woman from the Philippines who keeps discovering how different her plans are from her fate; Engracia, an undocumented domestic worker from Mexico is The One Whose Heart is Broken. And Coral, an African American woman who is one of the few characters actually born in Las Vegas, is The One Who Has Always Wondered.
Of course, all of these women fall in love, get their hearts shattered, confront bewildering questions, and stumble into luck both good and bad. Yet eventful as it is, the primary pleasure of this is novel is not its plot, or even its captivating characters.
What I enjoyed most is the way the narrative glows with a generous wisdom about the forces that shape our lives, forces as formidable as race and class, and as intimate as our own decisions and desires. From its evocative cover to its braided storylines, ‘Round Midnight is simply luminous.