Book Reviews

Reading Roundup

Here’s what’s been on my nightstand and in my backpack lately:

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationElizabeth McCracken
McCracken gets it. I wanted to highlight entire pages. As the cover pull quote says, “This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending.” Beautifully written, haunting, and nakedly raw and honest, this spoke to me in a very real way.

After a relatively easy pregnancy, McCracken had a full-term stillbirth while living in France. She had no indication that anything was wrong – until it all went off the rails. This book traces her guilt, grief, and mourning, but also her subsequent pregnancy during which she tries to manage all the FEELINGS. She returns again and again to the haunting “what ifs:” what if I had gone to the hospital sooner, what if I hadn’t assumed all would be well. She breaks the fourth wall several times to explain why she wrote the book:

“I will always be a woman whose first child died, and I won’t give up either that grievance or the bad jokes of everyday life. I will hold on to both forever. I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on but that death goes on, too, that a person who is dead is a long, long story. You move on from it, but the death will never disappear from view. Your friends may say, Time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t, but eventually you’ll feel better. You’ll be yourself again. Your child will still be dead. The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

And this, which has been my running theme for five months, especially in the pre-dawn darkness: “For us what was killing was how nothing had changed. We’d been waiting to be transformed, and now here we were, back in our old life.”

Product DetailsThe Fermented Man: A Year on the Front Lines of a Food RevolutionDerek Dellinger

I moved on to lighter fare, drawn to Dellinger’s premise: living for an entire year eating only fermented foods. (I am dabbling in fermented foods as I try to rebuild my gut biome after 16 weeks of antibiotics. Ask me about my pickles!) But there was so much repetition in this book that it could have easily been half the length and accomplished the same mission. His perspective (he’s a brewer) lent a very interesting note, and his chapter on wild beer fermentation was truly fascinating. However, a lot of the other chapters were unnecessary and could have used a strong editor.

Product DetailsInfinite JestDavid Foster Wallace

On September 12, I started reading Infinite Jest. I was slated to return to work on October 9, so I thought I could use my final month off work to get through the 1079-page behemoth.

I finished on November 27.

I’m conscious of E.M. Forster (“One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it”), but even a week after finishing, I’m not quite sure what happened, or what to think. I’ve gone into online rabbit holes where fans (and they are legion) propose and debate various theories as to what happened. I’ve flipped through the book again, catching new details and vaguely remembering the initial reading, yet failed to find some of the passages that stuck with me.

But I enjoyed every page of it, even the crazy timeline, the embedded footnotes, the humongous cast of characters that were difficult to keep track of. As my husband wisely counseled as I started, “You don’t read it for the plot; you read it for the language.”

That advice saved me. I delighted at Wallace’s mastery of the language, his transliterations from Quebecois into English (“deadbolt” becomes “lock of death” (or something similar – I can’t find the exact reference)), even his heavy use of acronyms.

The two (three?) primary plots are fascinating, especially as they veer together as the book accelerates to a resolution. There’s likely no other book that features an elite tennis academy, a halfway house, and Quebecois separatists. But if you should take on Infinite Jest, do it for the language, and take your time to enjoy it.

Product DetailsFelicia’s JourneyWilliam Trevor

An Irishman with an honorary British knighthood, Trevor’s prose is lyrical, descriptive, and timeless. Felicia’s journey begins in a small Irish town around the early 1990s, where a 17-year-old girl loses her job and is left with no prospects, until a young man visiting his mother sweeps her off her feet. He soon returns to his home in England, never giving her any contact information – but leaving her pregnant. She crosses the sea and tries to find him among the British Midlands, piecing together what little information she has. A local stranger offers to help, but she soon realizes that his own sad story and lonely veneer are obscuring something much more sinister.

Felicia’s journey throughout the Midlands was sad, yet engrossing as she tried to sort out truth from fiction and good from evil.

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