How to Mother, with Brit Bennett

Book Reviews, Fiction

“An inside hurt was supposed to stay inside.
How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you can’t hide.”
The Mothers, Brit Bennett

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Me, a copy of The Mothers, accompanying tote and saltwater. (October, 2016)

Often times, we are attuned to grand and sweeping tales about life and death, love and heartbreak, stories which take us to new landscapes, push us to new heights, until we find a well-hidden lesson in one of the pages, so minute that if we weren’t paying attention closely, we would’ve missed it.

When I picked up Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (Shop your local indie store), I knew that it wasn’t one of those tales. It was a book about a small black community in southern California, written in a folkloric way with the nuances of modern technology. The book is named after a group of older women in the community, wise in their years and lovingly all-knowing.

We were girls once. As hard as that is to believe.

Oh, you can’t see it now — our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks dropping. That’s what happens when you get old. Every part of you drops, as if the body is moving closer to where it’s from and where it’ll return.

The Mothers’ lives revolved around Upper Room, a small church in Oceanside, California and its attendants. There was Nadia Turner, a young woman who lived with her father (Robert) and whose mom (Elise) shot herself one day; her best friend Aubrey, a quiet girl who ran away from home (and her mother); and Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son, Nadia’s former lover who became Aubrey’s husband.

And while Bennett illustrates each character’s struggle with a depth that readers can empathize with, there are also deeper tensions that she addresses with lucidity.

Nadia keeps replaying details leading up to her mother’s suicide in mind, hoping she can find an answer to a growing number of why’s. One can only assume the weight imposed upon a frightened girl, the uncertainties weighing her down. Grief doesn’t have the same face, but it touches the heart and soul in almost the same way.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

A Series of Simple Joys, with Elizabeth Strout

Book Reviews, Fiction

I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton in a span of two days. It was hard to put down, for many good reasons.

Lucy Barton’s story is not grand by any means. She’s laying on a hospital bed in Manhattan for the most part, as she recounts experiences, relationships and various moments in life.

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There aren’t any unexpected plot twists, nor any breathtaking events that unfold. What you have is this instead: the clear voice of a woman, with an unhurried perspective on life.

I’m a fan of books that weave the political with the personal, books that explore spirituality, philosophy, history and literature. Of the most recent books I’ve immersed myself in, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Alain de Botton’s On Love: A Novel.

Lucy’s story wasn’t as wild, or philosophical, or as political as I’m used to but her voice stayed with me for a few days after I finished. She wrote about reading a lot, something I discovered after looking at all the pages I marked and went back to. Just like me, she grew up in the company of books. And just like me, she dreamt of being a writer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my one work was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel alone!

The stark simplicity and honesty of her voice struck me as genuine and whereas in other instances I would be uncomfortable, I was with her.

I say this because as a queer brown immigrant from the Philippines, it’s rare that I am able to find connections with those who enjoy (whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are complicit or not) privileges that have caused the oppression of others.

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