What? Two reviews in two days? It’s because Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife is impossible to put down. (And because I am between series on tv) The short story collection has common threads in Lao immigrant experiences of labour and family, but also of something like dignity and something like connection. I say something like because I’ve been lately trying to explain more and more abstractions to the kid and realizing how a word like dignity connotes so much more than ‘respect’ and ‘connection’ so much more than ‘linked’ so you’ll have to trust me that this collection makes an argument for the dignity of labour and the vitality of touch.
It is a collection free in its imagination and particular in detail. Reciting a list of the range of plot points and settings is the stuff of book jackets and you can take my word that the stories are wide ranging. Instead I’ll share the moments I liked best were of children experiencing the gutting mixture of mortification and gratitude that comes with parents making sacrifices and doing their best and yet – to the child – never quite doing or being what they hoped. And of characters who tolerate the impossible – e.g. living with your wife’s adulterer – because action would be admitting this impossible thing was happening and might necessitate a response.
The writing is exceptional; the stories swift and absorbing. Thanks to the non-book-book-club for the conversation and for K. for putting the book in my hands.
For 90% of last year I thought I was 37. I was not. I was 36, so this year, when I *really* turned 37 it felt like a gift. Surprise! You get to be 37! Again! It does Not Bode Well for my memory.
You’d think being 37 a second time would mean I’d have adult-ing sorted out. And to be clear, I do. But whenever adult became a verb, I lost track of what it meant in the pop culture sense – something about being the one to empty the dish drain of all the chopped up bits of food and stringy what’s its. Probably it means being a little rich and having a cleaning person so if you don’t really want to clean the dish drain you don’t have to (I have just googled it, and I am right.)
Emma Straub’s All Adults Here isn’t much clearer about what it means, except to insist at various points in the novel that all the grown children are adults. It follows a folksy white family from a super small town – like it has scenes of literal protests to keep big box stores from buying in – and their ups and downs and inbetweens. Astrid, the matriarch, offers the most scandal in announcing in the early pages that she is bisexual (the drama! the scandal!). Oh and there’s a daughter who decides to have a baby on her own Out of Wedlock (the drama! the scandal!). And a son who was never properly loved by his father (I can’t even).
I shouldn’t make fun of it, but it just read as so quaint when the world is on fire to be fretting about maintaining the downtown core.
Oh but actually, now that I mention it, the book does have a lovely set of scenes with the teenage character, Cecelia, figuring out the difference between privacy and a secret, and making this particular adult worry *even more* about how to raise children in this world even if it wasn’t already actually on fire.
For all my griping about how earnest it is and how willing to have everything work out in the end, I did enjoy reading it. Probably because we’re all yearning to have everything work out in the end. If you can suspend the desire for something real, and instead embrace this fiction-on-a-fiction, the adult-ing, of being an adult, then I’d recommend. If nothing else it would make a good beach read: entirely unaffecting while also being engaging.
We read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day with book club, and I’m 100% sure we should read Klara and the Sun together, too, because there are so many moments of ‘what would you do if’ that are both fascinating and (for the moment) speculative (but carry the near-future quality of only a matter of time). Mostly I can’t begin to answer these on my own during the length of nap I have to write this, and I am even more confident that having some wine and a snack sampler would make my answers better. So I offer you instead the questions I might ask and try to answer should we be gathering (with *spoilers):
- You have the choice to ‘lift’ your child by genetically tinkering to make them much smarter. Doing so carries some small risk of a lifetime of illness and death. Not doing so destines them to a life of subpar education/employment and social ostracism. What do you do?
- Your child dies. You could purchase a robot that will resemble your child in every way from appearance, to mannerisms, to speech. What do you do?
- Can a person be replaced in the most essential way by a robot – like not in the space of work, but in the literal replacement of a human? What qualities of human-ness cannot be replaced, if any?
- What and how is a ‘god’ or higher power constituted? What acts of faith and what proof of divinity do we need in order to conclude greater forces at play?
So yes. It’s an excellent book with an incredibly interesting narrator, fascinating questions to figure out and all kinds of unexpected and delightful plot moments. And given my best loved book club is still on hiatus, if you have thoughts on these questions or others… get in touch. xo
Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child is (oddly) hard to put down. Odd because it’s not plot-y, but instead a family drama that follows Jane, a devout Catholic mother, and her eldest daughter, Lauren, as they live the pro-life/pro-choice division. So why was it hard to put down? I guess it’s the smooth writing (smooth writing? what is that? Just trust me. Smoooooth) and the fascination with watching as Jane tries to live in the impossible extreme of ‘no exceptions’ in the pro-life argument.
I appreciated that the book kept the reader as some distance from the intensity of decision making around abortion, and instead allowed characters to explore these options in the gaps between chapters or the switch between limited third person narrators. This distancing kept this reader from being overwhelmed by a call to personal connection that might have made empathy challenging. Instead the reader is offered a sympathetic and entirely human portrait of trying to navigate the political, personal, religious and maternal dimensions of abortion that keeps enough distance to avoid triggering the reader’s existing beliefs about abortion and to invite the observation of how these women make sense of it.
I struggled in parts with what I think was meant to be subtly and slow revelation of some climactic character development, but for this tired reader was just too nuanced for me to make sense of. There’s a section, for instance, where Jane is revealing something [avoiding spoilers] about her children and her past, and I just… didn’t get it. It’s possible I missed an earlier reference point that would have let me make sense of what she was revealing, but whatever the case the section didn’t land and I was left thinking maybe it would be resolved later, but never was. I really can’t decide whether this is a fault of the book or of my reading habits which I freely admit involve a lot of the last twenty minutes before falling asleep right now, and so are not at my… sharpest.
This book was made for discussion among a book club, and I’m SO hoping my book club can resume in the fall, perhaps with this one (hey crew? maybe?). If your book club decides to read it, do let me know the kinds of questions that get explored. I mean you could read it by yourself, too. I GUESS.