If beach reads are those you tote with you to the beach (though let’s be clear, my beach days are all toting toddlers, and why is it ‘tote’ for the beach – like you never just carry something from your car to the sand, it has to be ‘toted’ I DIGRESS) what is the name for books you read in the dead of winter? For me it would be deep-bathtub-to-soak-the-cold-from-my-bones reads. I have this memory of reading The Kindly Ones almost exclusively in the bath in the winter of 2010 – memorable because it was close to 1000 pages and my bath was then (and now) Not Big – and probably because reading it was a purposeful diversion from the thesis writing I was meant to be doing.
[spoilers and sexual violence]
Now the diversion is from equally existential threats – will my floor ever not be covered in yogurt? (ha ha – we all know the threats are… much more substantive, but really, the menace of yogurt) – and the desire to sink in to anything else is high. And it’s So Cold. So we find ourselves with our bathtub read: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner – famous for beach reads. And it is one you can sink into with little effort and find yourself immersed (how far can I take this) in a decently plotted and reasonably thoughtful consideration of the long, irrevocable change wrought by a rape.
It follows Daisy and Diana and how their lives cross and the ways single events ricochet throughout the rest of their lives. It purposefully explores the privilege of class and gender – most clearly the threat of violence that underwrites too many sexual experiences and explicitly grapples with how #metoo upturned what many women took for granted as the way things were and had to be, and the safety of some men in imagining they could carry on being and doing horrendous things.
All while offering lush descriptions of Cape Code and picturesque cottages with bleached wood frames and outdoor showers. And too many descriptions of a pan fried steak. (for the record: one description of a pan fried steak is too many).
Where it doesn’t attempt any commentary and just takes for granted the assumed is in the whiteness of the book. And maybe that is fine, no book has to be all things or do all things. It just read as remarkably… focused on the particular threat for young white women running along a beach. Maybe more perplexing given the effort in the book to see the woman reading it – frustrated with a partner, irritated by a tween, struggling with Purpose and Meaning – and to myopically miss the possibility of additional complexity.
Anyway – probably all beach reads are marketed to rich white women (anyone written a Masters thesis on that?). But yes, this particular rich white woman needs another thing to read in the bath, so send me your suggestions.
Since Emily Bazelon first suggested reading Fleishman is in Trouble on the Slate Political Gabfest (one of my favourite podcasts ever), I have been excited to read it. I both like Emily and the general premise: divorce unfolds and man learns about emotional labour. Explaining emotional labour is emotional labour, so I’ll just let you read about it if you’re not super familiar. Continue reading
So remember when kale was like a Big Deal and it was in your cereal and your smoothies and your muffins and you were like ‘stop talking about kale! I don’t like it!’ (Or if you’re my mum, you were like ‘Kale?! I don’t even eat lettuce!’)? That’s how I felt about Pachinko. I was like, stop recommending this book to me, world. I get that it’s ‘good’ and ‘great’ and ‘life changing’ but it just looks dull and maybe over-hyped and probably there’s no way it can be anything other than a little chewy.
This is where the analogy falls apart. Because kale really is over-hyped and (as M. would observe) doesn’t need to be in anything because it’s really not that good. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on the other hand, is worth every single page of its 400+ brilliance (when did page count start to matter? In a meeting recently debating how many pages young people are willing/able to read (and our book club has the same talk) and I wanted to have a stomp and yell, because a novel should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and if it’s too long it’s too long because it didn’t need to be that long. I probably felt differently reading Infinite Jest but I DIGRESS).
Right, so Pachinko has the feel of a book that you’re going to read because it’s ‘important’ and ‘recommended’ (aka: full of brain vitamins) but then… it’s just… great. Like as a story you want to read and not put down. While also – and incidentally! that part is important! – being good for your literary life because it’s so well crafted. And in my case good for my political/historical life because I didn’t know *anything* about the history of Koreans in Japan, which… is what the book is about.
Reluctant to tell you the broad strokes of the plot because you’re likely to be like…
Kale. Boring. And it’s not! Anyway, it’s about a few generations of this Korean family living in/being Japanese, but not being Japanese because of bananas rules about Koreans-in-Japan and citizenship. Opening just before WWII we follow threads of gender, class, citizenship and nationality, along with all sorts of ideas of identity/belonging/passing and family. All layered around romance. Oh and religion! It really does have it all (haven’t you heard? Kale also makes your farts smell good).
So yeah. Be a better person and read Pachinko. And I promise this won’t be like interval training or CBD or coconut water [insert other ridiculous fad]. This one be the real deal.
Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.
The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.
What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).
I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!