The last reads of summer

So opens “Recuerdo de Acapulco,” part one of Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. After inscribing the song’s lyrics just above her novel’s prologue, Cisneros specifies this version in particular: “sung by the composer while playing the piano, accompanied by a sweet, but very, very sweet violin.”

First published by Alfred A. Knopf back in 2002, this Vintage Contemporaries paperback was released just one year later, in 2003. The cover design is lovely:

sepia photograph of a girl smiling with closed eyes, framed by colorful floral cut paper
Vintage Contemporaries, 2003

And, the content is lovely too. It is nostalgic; with the entirety of “Recuerdo de Acapulco” devoted to the main character Celaya’s memories of summertime trips to Mexico with her family as a child. But this is not a lightweight read. It is substantial and provocative; a mature work by a mature author. In it, Cisneros explores family dynamics, gender, and Mexican history; the complicated relationship between Mexico and the United States, and the impact of this relationship on individuals and families; as well as the interplay of fact and fiction within the context of collective memory.

During these last few days of summer, I also enjoyed Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand. Published by HarperPrism in 1995—eleven years before Saffron and Brimstone, which I finished last week—this does not stand out as mature writing, compared with Cisneros’ novel or even with Hand’s own subsequent work. But this has been characterized as a cult classic:

a white classically robed statue in front of a green eleborately decorated building, with the moon shining above
HarperPrism, 1995

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Reading with intention

Since experiencing trauma a couple of months ago at the hands of Ingrid Hill, I’ve been thinking about setting my intention as a reader. This means more than just knowing, and avoiding, my own triggers. It also means considering what I want to read, and why; formulating a plan of action; and summoning the discipline to follow through. With my life already half over, I don’t have time to waste. Reading hours are precious; and going forward, I hope to invest more wisely.

My plan is to seek out and consume the most nourishing texts I can find. Texts, for example, which address middle and end-of-life concerns; texts based on classical sources, as well as on folk and fairy tales; texts written by women, including women from cultures other than my own; and nature writing. This last category honors large and small aspects of our universe, filtered through a beholder’s eye.

I have, it seems, already started on my campaign. With the need to recover from my time with Hill as catalyst, I found and read two very different books last month: Saffron and Brimstone, by Elizabeth Hand; and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Both address limitation, loss, and isolation. Both draw on older sources; and the natural world shines through both with parallel significance. But the similarities end here. Ivey’s novel, based on a Russian fairy tale, feels clean and innocent; while Hand’s short stories are more complex. Her source materials include Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as works by Franz Kafka.

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Full Cicada Moon

by Marilyn Hilton

This is such a lovely book. Technically I think it should be classed as YA, since the protagonist is in the seventh grade; but the content is so uplifting, and the underlying message so positive, that I would hand it to any girl with adequate reading ability. Hilton opens this fairly unique novel-in-verse with two epigraphs. The first, and thematically more important, is attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Be loving enough
to absorb evil
and understanding enough
to turn an enemy into a friend.

Originally published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2015, my paperback edition was published by Puffin just two years later, in 2017:

Cover image of the main character, Mimi, with her eyes closed and face upturned into falling snow
Puffin Books, 2017

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a reader. Economic pressure ensures that most of us are taught, from an early age, to make, craft, and create. We learn that time invested in developing a product is time well spent, and that production is inherently more virtuous than consumption. As adults, we quickly discover that we must produce; or face the consequences of failure.

When writers make books for us, they are doing what they have been taught to do. They are working hard, and producing. But their products deepen in meaning when taken up and digested by readers; readers provide writers with a critical service.

A few years ago, I had a friend at work who took the time, nearly every day, to listen to me. The relationship was imbalanced; I don’t think I did the same for her, and it wasn’t until she moved away that I came to fully appreciate her service. She had—calmly and reliably—made herself available to me, as a witness; and, this had made a difference.

Reading is not glamorous. Readers’ names are not inscribed on the covers of books, and readers do not win literary prizes. But readers matter because readers hear writers. They hear because they take the time to listen.

Last week, as I finished the last few pages of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I became aware of my own role as witness. In this novel, first published by 4th Estate back in 2006, Adichie chronicles a civil war which took place in Nigeria in the late 1960s. Hundreds of thousands—or, possibly, millions—of men, women, and children died. Distracted by other events occurring globally at the same time, or simply not interested, residents of other nations somehow failed to notice this.

abstract pattern in yellow, black, and light green on cover of novel
4th Estate: London, 2016

But fifty years after the fact and on the other side of the globe, I finally became a witness. In this masterpiece of historical fiction, Adichie documents what happened to the Igbo dissidents who seceded from a newly independent Nigeria back in 1967. Declaring Igbo lands independent from greater Nigeria in response to a genocidal slaughter of Igbo people, citizens of the new state, Biafra, gradually starved. Reading Adichie’s novel, I learned about kwashiorkor: a form of protein malnutrition primarily affecting children. Biafran children suffered and died as the Nigerian military cut off all supplies—including humanitarian aid—to the independent state of Biafra.

In addition to reporting on the events of the war, Adichie addresses ownership of the story—who has the right to tell it—in an interesting way, and presents a cast of multidimensional characters who evolve significantly throughout the course of the novel. Historicity aside, the fiction itself is compelling; and brims with Adichie’s clear, powerful imagery and unforgettable phrasing. This is the fragile beauty of Purple Hibiscus . . . raised to a new level and, suddenly, grown rock-solid.

On a personal level, I was gratified to find infertility quietly stalking Adichie’s characters, arriving as it so often arrives: unexpectedly, and to little fanfare; insidiously; and at no one time. This is something that isn’t often addressed in fiction, and to find it addressed here—and addressed so well—deepens my respect for Adichie herself, as a student of human experience. Her novel is excellent because, as she clearly demonstrates, she has taken the time to listen. She is, first and foremost, not a wordsmith, not a crafter; she is, at heart, a witness.

Ursula as apologia

cover image of a china doll in a pink pleated skirt, upside down and underground, shrouded in roots
Penguin Books, 2005

Ursula, Under was not a healthy book for me to read. Put another way: I was not the right reader for Ingrid Hill’s monumental tribute to human reproduction. Because I found it so difficult to read, the book took me months to finish. I abandoned it over and over again; angry with what I interpreted as unsubtle rhetoric and a worldview from which my own potential to exist—as a well-intentioned but fertility-challenged human being—had been categorically excised. But as often as I put the book away, I found myself picking it up again: counterintuitively nourished, each time I did, by the intricacy of Hill’s prose style.

First published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill back in 2004, this novel is really a collection of interconnected short stories culled from the life histories of one child’s many ancestors. The takeaway seems to be the value of this one child’s life as the end product of thousands of years of ancestry. Throughout the novel, flawed ancestors are redeemed by the act of engendering and bearing children. Forgotten ancestors, failed ancestors, and ancestors who die leaving nothing to posterity . . . all matter, despite their insufficiencies. They matter because their DNA continues to flow forward and shape the future of humanity.

What a chilling message Hill delivers to those with no hope of becoming ancestors.

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