Five Recent Reads

At the moment, I’m trying to start writing ~for real~ which means working on longer pieces and submitting them to publications. Thom and I have decided to stay in Indianapolis long term, which means I have the environmental stability to really test my writing (i.e. rejection) stamina. It’s daunting, but I’m psyched. (See Thom’s blog for more details.)

I have already sabotaged my writing hours by adopting up a kitten from the Indianapolis Humane Society. I did this approximately one day after I committed to a new, more focused writing plan. Chickpea is a needly little thing, with major keyboard-envy. But she’s also cute and cuddly and livens up our home-office with her kitten antics.

Meet Chickpea, my saboteur.

So as I lift Chickpea off my desk for the 20th time this hour and return her to the floor, I thought I’d keep this writing exercise short and sweet. Below are five books I’ve read and enjoyed in the last few months. What’s more, these are all written by women or people of color:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other is a great, lengthy, relational novel. Evaristo brings together every kind of non-straight-white-male character imaginable. The book is set in the UK, which I found very fun. The London setting centers on the National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, which allowed me to reminisce about studying abroad in that very spot five years ago as a junior in college. It’s also interesting to read about the history of the Black community in the UK, insofar as it is similar to and different from the experience of Black citizens of the United States. Particularly after the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, this novel offered me a way to contemplate race that was new and slightly removed from the current content of Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/etc.

My only criticism of Evaristo’s novel is that I found the flow a bit choppy. My reading was slowed, especially in the first half, by the continual introduction of new characters and new perspectives, and the complete dropping of the previous characters. (Until in the end, that is, when all of the times, places, and people prove to be intertwined, as in one of those ensemble rom-coms from the 2000s.) One might compare the reading experience to driving down a residential road with a stop sign every-other block. Come to a full stop, then rev the engine to get going again. But ultimately, Girl, Woman, Other was worth the reengagement effort. The characters and relationships Evaristo packs into this 400+ pager, with their widely variable racial, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual dynamics are a fascinating study in humanity’s complexity and the spectrums of identity. And frankly, these are the kinds of stories I have not read anywhere else.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is a recent release — one I had been anticipating ever since I finished Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers. The novel has a fascinating premise: it’s the 1960s in a fictional light-skinned Black town called Mallard in Louisiana, and a pair of twin girls comes of age. Progressive skin-lightening was a goal of the town’s founders, who established Mallard after they were freed post-Civil War. One twin grows up to live as a Black person, the other leaves her family behind to start a new life passing as white. This creates a rift between the sisters and their offspring, and shows how the ideal of whiteness permeates and causes destruction in all American communities — whether Black, white, or mixed-race. Bennett reveals race for what it is: America’s foundational caste system, and she exposes the system’s relational consequences across decades, cities, and within families.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is falls into the same category as Girl, Woman, Other insofar as it provides a slightly removed context in which to understand and examine racism. I’ve found that sometimes its easier for me to see evil clear-eyed when the U.S. is not directly involved. But unlike Evaristo’s novel, Born A Crime is a nonfiction story — Noah’s own. Noah is brilliant, funny, and informative as a narrator of his life and the history of apartheid in South Africa. As a “mixed” person (Black mother, white father) whose existence was technically illegal, Noah did not fit into any of the racial categories where he lived. Consequently, he has a fascinating perspective on how race, culture, and language function to either divide us or to bring us together.

I listened to Born A Crime on audiobook, which turned out to be a great choice. Noah is a wonderful narrator, and the voices he does for his family members, his younger self, and others make the book come to life. He’s both earnest and hilarious. It’s also helpful to hear him read aloud the many South African language phrases that appear throughout his story. (By the way, this is one of those annoying “Audible exclusives” — so you can’t get it from the library on Libby. Annoying, but worth it.)

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I picked up Such A Fun Age shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement resurged with new vigor, making a promise to myself to read more books by BIPOC (a new acronym for me: Black and Indigenous People of Color).

My favorite thing about Reid’s novel was the main character Emira. She’s about my age, in her mid-20s, and in a similar state of confusion regarding her career, her future, and her ambivalence about seeking the kind of worldly achievement everyone is supposed to want (and everyone else wants for her).

I felt affirmed by her suspicious, measured view of American values, and the genuine fulfillment she finds spending her days babysitting. I also enjoyed Reid’s engagement with the idea of boundaries: between employer and employee, between white woman and Black woman. Alix (the mom, white woman, employer) thinks of Emira as hers; she transgresses boundaries, assumes ownership over Emira’s time, personal life, and decisions, and tries to establish a friendship where there is a pervasive, obvious power imbalance. As someone who has held several assistant jobs in my life, I found Reid’s portrayal of the boss-employee dynamic to ring true, and I was glad to engage with the additional layer a racial power imbalance. Overall, Such A Fun Age is a great read. It’s not as heavy as The Vanishing Half, (the characters seem happier), but it’s just as powerful.

I was able to get Such A Fun Age from the library (I use the Libby app) and read it on my kindle. Often, with popular books or new releases, the Indianapolis Public Library will offer me a 7-day “skip the line” e-book loan shortly after I place a hold. This is my favorite pandemic discovery; an unexpected system that makes it possible for me to actually get new books from the library relatively quickly, and with proper social-distancing.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read City of Girls months ago and was surprised at how much I loved it. The novel features an all-women cast of characters whose lives revolve around the 1940s New York City theater scene. There are playwrights, songwriters, costume-designers, and showgirls. Gilbert creates a vivid, exciting picture of this alternative life — one without husbands, kids, catalogs, and midlife depression. Gilbert’s characters are fascinating, well-rounded, creative, and free. As most of the books about women in the late 1800s and early 1900s in end in the bored, miserable protagonist having an affair or committing suicide (looking at you, Kate Chopin and Anna Karenina), it was such a joy to read a novel set in that time that is so full of joy.


Chickpea has fallen asleep in the back of my chair, where my lower back leaves a kitten-sized gap. Today I started reading Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, which has a plot suspiciously similar to Such a Fun Age (career woman is lonely and sad, resigned to a new suburban life away from New York City, staying home with with young kids, and tries to befriend babysitter). But I have high hopes, because I’ve loved every single book by Sullivan. Her last one, Saints of All Occasions, was her best novel yet, in my opinion. She writes about women navigating complex lives and relationships (familial relationships, mainly) which never gets old for me. And I’m particularly excited because I bought this book in hardback, after spending about three months exclusively consuming kindle library rentals. It feels good to hold a book again.

Okay, one more Chickpea picture.

Chickpea takes a ride in Thom’s water bottle sling.

Rachel Cusk’s Search for Truth

I discovered Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) last June on some news outlet’s summer reading list. Initially, I borrowed the book from the library, but after reading a couple dozen pages and finding passage after passage I wanted to underline, I capitulated to my desire to mark it up and bought a copy.

In the following passage in the first (and arguably best) novel of the trilogy, Outline, Cusk’s narrator describes the nature of Truth in terms of her two children who previously played happily together daily and were now in a constant state of war:

“Their antagonism was in exact proportion to their former harmony, but where the harmony had been timeless and weightless, the antagonism occupied space and time. The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure mortality. . . Each of them wanted more than anything to be declared right, and the other wrong, but it was impossible to assign blame entirely to either of them. And I realized eventually. . . . that it could never be resolved, not so long as the aim was to establish the truth, for there was no single truth any more, that was the point. There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality even. Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.”

This excerpt represents Cusk’s main project as an author, as I understand it: to search for captial-t Truth in everything. She asks what conditions Truth requires; she deduces its nature by examining those places where it is absent. She asks her readers to not accept stories at face value, but to accept them insofar as they are True.

For example, in Outline, Cusk’s narrator moves through the world as a spectator and offers herself as a listener. After a character has told Cusk’s narrator his or her story — just when the reader has nearly forgotten there was a character-listener at all — Cusk’s narrator will often challenge the story’s facts and conclusions. For example, after a man seated next to Cusk’s narrator on a flight from London to Athens tells her his life story (unprompted), Cusk’s narrator concludes: “I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect.”

In her Coventry essays, Cusk is just as rigorous with herself as a storyteller as her narrator in Outline is with others. For example, in the title essay “Coventry,” Cusk investigates her parents’ use of the silent treatment against her, concluding: “My mother and father seem to believe they are inflicting a terrible loss on me by disappearing from my life. They appear to be wielding power, but I’ve come to understand that their silence is the opposite of power. It is in fact failure, their failure to control the story, their failure to control me.”

However, the next paragraph begins, “But perhaps it isn’t like that at all.” Cusk goes on to consider an entirely different take on what the silent treatment might represent by discussing its employment among middle school girls. She writes: “By sending someone to Coventry you are in a sense positing the idea of their annihilation, asking how the world would look without them in it.” In this sense, the perpetrators of the silent treatment aren’t “like desperate people taking the last of their possessions to the pawnshop” realizing “a failure so profound that all they have left to throw at it is the value of their own selves” (as she first postulated) — but rather they use it to wage a psychological battle against their victim, i.e., “If other people pretend you’re not there, how long can you go on believing you exist?” And both of these ideas are offered by Cusk herself, on the same page.

Thus Cusk demonstrates how multiple perspectives on a single subject can be capital-t True. The second understanding does not undo the first, but rather reveals the first to be incomplete. This is what I love about Cusk’s writing. One of the biggest challenges for me, as someone who likes to write, is constant self-doubt and ever-evolving understanding of the world, myself, and the stories that make up both. If I decide upon one version of events and their meaning one day, but the next alter it completely – what do I do with that first understanding? Erase it? But how would I have landed at the second without the first? And now, what about a third perspective that hits me tomorrow? How do I ever write anything at all, if my understanding of the world is always changing – if the shape and color of Truth keeps changing within my grasp?

As a reader and writer, I find Truth not only in how Cusk sees the world, but in how she reveals her thinking and writing process. Her stories all contain a writer’s journey of postulating, doubting, re-forming, doubting again, and landing at what can only ever be temporary conclusions. Rather than begin at the end – with a single idea – she reveals how her thinking process begins, builds, partly undoes itself, then builds again. There is no certainty in any conclusion – only in the joy of the continued search.

One of my favorite examples is Cusk’s sharp vision is her description of Walt Disney World in her essay “Lions on Leashes.” She describes Disney as a “world where wish fulfillment had become a moral good yet whose ultimate desire was to obscure the truth.”

This image of Disney World reminded me of my family’s Make-a-Wish week-long trip there in the summer of 2015. As a Make-a-Wish family, we were put up in a “village” for a week called Give Kids the World with other Make-a-Wish families. To me, a cynical 21-year-old jet-lagged after a semester studying abroad in London, it felt like a Candy Land board come to life — or like that dystopian episode of Sesame Street where Elmo wishes it were Christmas every day. At Give Kids the World, Santa and the Easter Bunny come every day and will even tuck you in at night (unless that idea is terrifying to you – as it was to my brother Michael). A Wish Kid, as well as his or her parents and his or her college-aged siblings, can order free pizza and ice cream at any time of the day, go on free fair rides, eat unlimited amounts of dining hall food (at the Gingerbread Palace), swim in the pool, fish in the ever-stocked pond, etc. Fun all day, every day – at least, of the material variety.

Is this not a life-sized Candy Land? Image from

The confluence of this colorful, material dream-world with the terminally ill kids it housed was shocking, at least to me. As we rode a golf cart from the Welcome Center to our house on the first day, I saw kids on all kinds of medical machinery being wheeled around under giant Disney sculptures by tired-looking parents. Michael seemed to have no idea of anything particularly exciting in these surreal surroundings, but was excited that our family was together. My brother David and I ordered free ice cream and pizza (not things Michael could enjoy, due to his specialized medically-necessary diet), reluctantly interacting with the overly-cheerful volunteers. As Cusk wrote, “wish fulfillment had become a moral good whose ultimate desire was to obscure the truth,” and yet “the truth had stubbornly continued to insist on itself.”

My memory of our week at Give Kids the World has haunted me for a long time. Why did I hate that place so much? Why is my view of the thing so bleak? The rest of my family did not react even close to as strongly as I did. But now my newfound Cuskian understanding of storytelling and searching comforts me. It’s not that the first version of the story (that Give Kids the World sucks and everything is fake) is not true, but that there remains a perspective by which I can drop deeper into the truth – i.e. move towards captial-T truth. Cusk, rather than trying to make the reader question him or herself, works to make the reader comfortable with uncertainty as a necessary part of the journey to truth.

So maybe it was not like that at all. Maybe Give Kids the World is True for the people it was made to serve – terminally and/or chronically ill children. Kids who only see Santa as Santa – even if he’s played by a different leather-skinned retiree every night. Its goal is not to obscure the truth, but to dare to believe entirely in a child’s perspective of it. And perhaps the experience of college-age Make-a-Wish siblings secretly making fun of the place all week long is an added joy of such an earnest commitment. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write something else tomorrow. As Cusk says, “A desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language.”

David meets the Muffin Man.
Shrek characters watch from above in the House of Hearts.