I preordered Kim Liggett’s new novel The Grace Year as soon as I could, and was riveted the moment I had it in hand to devour. There is simply no other way to consume this book — heart in hand, fully devouring this tale of girlhood and womanhood. Liggett’s speculative fiction expertly weaves a world where women have no power or agency, save the magic they must be rid of in their sixteenth year, the grace year. It is a survival story, a modern fairy tale, a coming-of-age, a resistance manifesto, and a terrifying horror yarn all at the same time, deftly told and hauntingly realized. I could not put it down.
There are so many ways that women and girls tear each other apart and lift each other up by turns, and this novel explores those dynamics in interesting ways. What does power come to mean when you are entirely deprived of it? How do we define ourselves within the rhythms of family, society, friendships, and love? What does that mean for our self-hood? How can we push for meaningful change? All of these are questions I turned over in my mind as this story unfolded.
Besides a fascinating macro look at a society described by some as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, I thoroughly appreciated Liggett’s attention to small details. The language of flowers in particular made for a beautiful leitmotif, further strengthening her world-building. Flowers make for a common language, but they also prove to be a perfect metaphor for the girls themselves. Fragile, beautiful, unique, prized, just as easily crushed as admired — the Grace Year girls and their story will haunt you long after Liggett’s last page.
While on vacation this summer I read Lisa Taddeo’s new book, Three Women. To say it was arresting would be an understatement. It is a striking non-fiction work about women and desire, women and sex, but most of all, women and loneliness.
Taddeo spent eight years researching this book, covering the lives of women across the U.S. in their most intimate spaces. The result is a portrait of three women in very different places in life, but all desirous, lonely, empty and fulfilled by turns. Lina pulls away from a loveless marriage and begins an affair with her high school sweetheart. Maggie endures a statutory rape trial while mentally reliving the relationship she shared with her high school teacher. Sloane is a happily married woman whose husband enjoys choosing other men for her to sleep with. All of their swirls of emotion are painfully familiar despite their varied situations: an ache for acceptance, a reckoning with the past, isolated loneliness and attempts to escape it, lusty desire, self-doubt and self-examination in equal measure. Taddeo does a masterful job of creating something far beyond journalism; she paints the lives of these women in a way that is both personal and universal, and she makes sure to give each agency over her own story in the process.
Three Women is a must-read. Add it to your summer reading list if you haven’t already, and prepare for a book that will affect you profoundly.
I recently finished reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, and just had to share. Published under the collection title Lilith’s Brood since 2000, it is made up of three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Butler is an excellent storyteller, with a “hard science fiction” bent in this trilogy that is satisfying as well as thought-provoking.
The series takes place in an interesting sort of dystopian future, where humans have destroyed Earth and each other almost completely. An alien race steps in to save what is left, hoping to trade genetic material to ensure the survival of both humanity and themselves. The aliens believe humankind, if left unaltered, contain a “Contradiction” between their high intelligence and their hierarchical nature that will lead to eventual demise in every scenario, as was already proven by our destruction. A fascinating thought to consider, isn’t it?
While my own personal prose style preference strays closer to that of Amor Towles, thematically Butler does a masterful job of exploring sexuality, race, species, gender, and humanity — deftly and also in an entirely un-preachy way. While decades old at this point, Lilith’s Brood is almost frighteningly relevant to us today. Are we doomed to obliterate ourselves without some kind of outside intervention? Can our intelligence outweigh our hierarchical strivings? Is our stubbornness a boon or a hindrance? It may be that history will have to play itself out before we can answer these questions, but Butler gives us a powerful nudge to think about these things sooner than later — all tied up in an engaging alien-encounter package.
Octavia Butler cover art by John Jude Palancar.
“We believe in love because we want to believe in it. Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles? The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it.”
–Tara Conklin, The Last Romantics
This past weekend I devoured the new novel The Last Romantics from Friday night until late Sunday. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to put it down. Tara Conklin does a masterful job of drawing us into the lives of four siblings, weaving a story I found both arresting and vividly meaningful.
Spanning from their childhood in the early 1980s through to a slightly dystopian 2079, the Skinner siblings deal with the sudden death of their father, their mother’s depression that follows they call only “the Pause,” and the lives they lead in the years that follow. Conklin deftly explores what love means, and loyalty — how family ties bind and break, pull and twist us into the people we become. Romantic love is peppered into the narrative, but the overarching theme is familial love, how it shapes us, and the heaviness and the light which it carries.
Conklin’s writing reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver by way of Lauren Groff, yet with her own voice and style that make for a deeply engaging novel, one that resonated with me long after I turned the last page. A rich, rewarding read.
Right now there are so many inspiring books on design to choose from! If I had to pick three right now, I’d be diving into these handsome volumes. Each has a unique point of view, but all feature amazing, quirky, beautiful spaces that I’d love to pore over again and again. Coincidentally, all three are by incredible women that I am proud to support.
It’s Beautiful Here by Megan Morton
This is Home: The Art of Simple Living by Natalie Walton
The Alchemy of Things by Karen McCartney
After admiring the cover and peeking inside virtually every time I visit Blue Bottle Coffee Co., I finally picked up a copy of Caitlin Freeman’s Modern Art Desserts. I am so glad I did! Freeman’s book is a gem. Formerly of Miette, Freeman clearly knows her way around amazing desserts — backwards, forwards, and sideways, in fact. What made this cookbook stand out for me was the fact that is not only full of stunning recipes, but also it serves as both a personal memoir and a mini-guide to some of the works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While Freeman and her beautiful desserts are no longer at SFMOMA, the cookbook that resulted from her tenure there is a pleasure for the pastry enthusiast and art lover alike.
Each dessert is presented with a photograph of the pastry, an image of the artwork it was inspired by, information about the work and the artist, and Freeman’s own experiences creating the dish. Then follows the recipe, with clear, clean instructions. Many of the recipes are quite aspirational — the complex Mondrian cake, for example, takes a whopping two days. However, specialized supplies and ingredients are sourced in the book, out-of-the-ordinary equipment is highlighted and explained, and a section early on gives a great rundown of both the ingredients and cooking tools you’ll likely need throughout. Freeman somehow manages to make incredibly complex recipes seem both aspirational and accessible. Mixed in with culinary feats like the Mondrian cake are slightly lower key options like trifle, sodas, popcicles, and even a savory snack or two, so there are certainly options for those who prefer to measure their recipe timing in minutes or hours rather than days.
Overall I was surprised and delighted by Modern Art Desserts. It is a diverting read above and beyond being a good cookbook. If you’re a modern art fan, give this one a whirl. Freeman has given us candy for the eyes and the taste buds in equal measure.
While I was blissfully meandering in a bookstore in Seattle, I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs. I find her work to be meditative, insightful, and beautiful, and this slender volume about dogs did not disappoint.
Some of the poems seem to be simple, lyrical observations, but gradually you find yourself drawn into contemplations about life, love, and the simple joys and sorrows of being. I read the whole book in a single quiet afternoon, my dogs sleeping at my feet — and in hindsight, I cannot think of a more restorative way to spend a Saturday. Oliver’s keen eye and unabashed incorporation of nature into the fiber of her life make Dog Songs a unique entry in the canine companion poetry milieu. A quietly moving read.