Memorial, by Bryan Washington

I’ve been wanting to read Memorial all year, partly given it’s broad acclaim and partly out of a desire to support my fellow UNO alum, Bryan Washington. So naturally I started this one as soon as I got it (as a holiday gift from yet another UNO alum!). And, to summarize, I really enjoyed this book.

Firstly, I thought the plot was so convincing and intriguing. Brief synopsis: a couple is forced to reconsider their close relationships and life goals when one of them unexpectedly travels abroad and leaves his mother and partner to live together. This feels so probable and yet, so strange. I found myself eager to know what would happen to each of the three main characters.

Additionally, I was really interested in the intertextual nature of this novel – it relies on traditional prose, but also photographs and text messages to tell a broader narrative.

The only thing I struggled with a bit while reading Memorial was it’s occasional use of crude language and description when I felt that something more subtle would do. For me, it was a little as though crass language was leveraged for shock value at times.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed the writing and voice of this book. It was easy to read, modern, and convincing. Give it a shot!

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood


I’ve been meaning to read this one for a very long time – in fact, I’ve been meaning to read anything by Margaret Atwood for a very long time, and I finally got around to The Handmaid’s Tale this month. So now, at long last, I understand what all the hype is about.

I had really high expectations coming into this one, and for the most part, Atwood lived up to them. She does an incredible job of building a dystopian society that is somehow both near and far from the one we live in today – a feat that is both impressive and terrifying. (If you’re wondering how that something can be both near and far, consider one huge theme of the book: women’s rights. It’s hard to imagine a near future in which women can’t own property or have autonomy over their own bodies, and yet look at a few of the recent news stories… Texas abortion law… Britney Spears…). Within this dystopia, Atwood explores so many complex themes in addition to woman’s rights: the nature of memory, the importance of language and text, the role of government in society, and so many more.

The only place where I was just a little bit let down was that I felt like the final chapter, which is formatted as a dissertation of sorts on the society that the book depicts, seems to be used as a sort of way to explain questions that are unclear throughout the book. I was a little disappointed that they couldn’t be explained earlier or as part of the narrative, but that’s me getting picky…

Overall, I would recommend this to a lot of folks I know, and you can bet I’ll be listening to a lot of podcasts and book talks about this one. And of course, there is a Netflix series and a sequel (The Testaments) that I’ll be diving into soon as well!

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

It’s been a long time since I was so intrigued by a narrator, or even by a protagonist. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk delivers a character that is incredibly complex; she is serious but funny, odd but convincing, unstable but proactive. Even without the plot that drives this novel forward, I think I would have kept reading just to observe her.

That said, there is a plot, and it’s the classic whodunit murder mystery, set in a tiny Polish village. But while I often think of murder mysteries as being pure entertainment, this novel was much, much more. Tokarczuk elevates this plot to grapple with some really big topics: borders, motherhood, death, justice, mental health, art, and so much more. I picked this one up because it’s the @fictionmatters book club pick of the month, and I just can’t wait to discuss some of these big themes.

I have to admit, before starting this one, I was a little skeptical, having read Tokarczuk’s prize-winning story collection, Flights, and not absolutely loving it. But now that I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed Drive Your Plow…, I may need to revisit Flights (admittedly I was much younger and I’m a different reader now). I’ll definitely be doing that soon…

“Our Souls at Night”, Refreshing & Lovely

After a few epic, dense reads, I was looking for a story that would be a little lighter – something with a high entertainment factor. I took a recommendation from my mother with Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. And I got everything I was looking for and more.

This story is not only full of surprises. First of all, the two central characters are elderly, which, I realized as I was reading, almost never happens. And of course, if older characters do appear in literature, it’s usually only to fulfill some kind of trope or stereotype… the sage, the senile or incapacitated, the cranky old hermit… Gandalf, Grandpa Joe, Scrooge. In this story, Kent Haruf rejects those stereotypes and gives dignity, agency, and voice too a segment of society that is too often denied all three.

Secondly, while the narrative and themes in this story feel straightforward – quite simply, two lonely people coming together and throwing social expectations out the window – Haruf ultimately does a fantastic job of making that narrative and the core themes of the story extremely complicated. So not only did I get a quick, entertaining read, but I actually found myself thinking really deeply about age, love, friendship, loneliness, social expectations, parenting, and so many other topics and themes of this simple, lovely story.

Related Links:

Ready to read it? Get the book from a local, independent bookstore or publisher HERE.

Turns out there is a 2017 film adaptation of the book, staring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. It has an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not too shabby. I might have to give it a watch. Did you see it? What did you think?

Lastly, I couldn’t help but wonder about some other books that put a positive spin on age. Here’s a few things I found:

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I’m so late to the game in getting to Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing. And I have to admit, it was not at all what I expected.

In a panel earlier this week, I heard an editor from a prestigious publishing house say that, when it comes to positioning a book, the publishing industry tends to pigeonhole writers into certain categories and that often, their race or heritage plays a role in creating that (often quite biased and racist) definition. I can’t help but thinkin about these comments in relation to Homegoing, given all the reviews that assert “[Toni Morrison’s] influence is palpable” (Vogue) and that Gyasi is “Carrying on in the tradition of her foremothers – like Toni Morrison […]”.

And while certainly Gyasi touches on similar subject matter to Toni Morrison, reviewers who have drawn comparisons to Alex Haley’s Roots or Chinua Achebe’s work feel more apt to me. But I would have added less-obvious comparisons to the list: the epic, intergenerational story that Gyasi has crafted so vividly and so artfully in Homegoing reminds me of Allende’s House of Spirits and even Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy (though of course, much shorter).

The reason I bother to parse out all these comparisons is because I think what Gyasi does so well in this novel (which I should say, I really enjoyed!) is create a thread between generations. And at the same time, she gives readers enough familiarity with each generation that those threads are easy to follow and you can’t help but care deeply for characters even when they appear only for a chapter or two. I found myself wondering how I could care so deeply for a character within a few short pages, and came to the conclusion that was because of this “thread” Gyasi weaves through the narrative. As with our personal ancestry or bloodlines, when we consider the events of generations past, we inherit some of their trauma and injustices, some of their pride and beliefs. It lives on within us and makes us care about that thread. I think that is an incredibly powerful and difficult message to demonstrate through literature but Gyasi, even in her debut novel, has proven herself up to the challenge.

Are you a fan of intergenerational narratives? Did you enjoy Gyasi’s 250-year-long thread? Let me know what you thought about Homegoing in the comments below.

Keep Reading:

Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Warning! Spoiler alert!

Finished Homegoing? Loved it? Ready for more? Try Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel: Transcendent Kingdom

Get the book.

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