It’s been a hard month-plus for a lot of us since Trump was inaugurated, and as my friend Joanna jokes, whenever I run into trouble, I turn to books. In my last reading list, which I posted shortly after the U.S. election, I suggested five books to read on race. This time, I’m focusing on feelings.
One of the best things stories offer us is a chance to walk around in someone else’s skin. As President Obama so rightly noted when describing the importance of reading in his life and presidency, books allow us “the ability to slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in someone else’s shoes”—and if we need nothing else at this time, it’s certainly more empathy. (The full transcript of Obama’s interview with the New York Times about books and reading is beautiful and available here.)
So here are some of the things I’ve read recently that have given me feels and made me feel more human. I hope you might be moved by them, too.
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
I’m gonna be honest—this is my second time reading this book, and I read it before the election results were announced. I’d filled out my absentee ballot. I’d scanned and sent it from the lovely Airbnb home I was staying at in Pokhara, Nepal. Trump wasn’t even on my radar.
But Nepal was a weird time for me. I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu, unsure about how to face the legacy of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent that I’d just traveled through, confused about how to deal with my economic privilege in the midst of a lot of poverty, and had been on the road for almost six months.
I’d retreated to Pokhara for a couple weeks, to a lovely rustic property up the hill from Phewa Lake, to write and regroup. As much as I needed the quiet time, I was simultaneously struck by a feeling of aloneness (with the good and bad that goes with it) and self-defeating doubt.
I hadn’t felt invested in my fiction writing in a long time. I doubted the usefulness of stories. I didn’t know where my voice had gone, or why.
So, I turned to Let the Great World Spin, a book that I’ve counted as one of my favorites since I first read it a few years ago. So often, I’ve viewed literary fiction as a place of sadness; so infrequently have I found literary fiction that puts some hope in the bottom of the box.
Let the Great World Spin is an aching, dizzying, resonating piece that does just that—while sorting through realms of grief, longing, loneliness, and connection. Told through multiple viewpoints, McCann takes the reader deep into the lives a series of narrators who are connected by a thin thread (thicker for some than others) via the moment in 1974 when a man strung a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in New York and walked across it. Each voice layers on top of the other, giving each greater meaning, and pulling the reader across space and time, into living rooms and antique cars and subway tunnels and the tops of towers, inviting us in for coffee, inviting us to share in one another’s grief and, in the end, to land on love.
Let the Great World Spin reminds me of how intimately we are connected, how deeply grief and loss can affect us, and how love and empathy can draw us through the even darkest of times.
Hood, Emma Donoghue
After the referendum in Ireland that legalized same-gender marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision that made same-gender marriage legal throughout the United States, and other advancements around the world in terms of marriage equality, Hood might seem a like a relic for some readers. But it’s nonetheless important.
Published in the mid-1990s, Hood tells the story of Penelope O’Grady, or Pen, an Irish lesbian who has lost her partner of more than a decade in a car accident. The novel opens just after Pen has received the news of Cara’s death, drawing the reader through the stages of Pen’s grief alongside her via first-person narration and Pen’s detours into memories of her sometimes-turbulent relationship.
Hood is important alone as a portrait of grief and the ties that draw us together and pull us apart. Yet, especially at its time of publication, it was groundbreaking in the way it humanized same-gender romantic relationships and highlighted the effects of living and loving in the closet. For example, Pen isn’t out at her work (she teaches at a Catholic girls’ school); after Cara’s death, who Pen says is her housemate, Pen only gets a couple days off (whereas, if her relationship to Cara were recognized by the state, she’d get bereavement leave). Pen writes Cara’s obituary, but leaves herself out of it completely. She lives in Cara’s house with Cara’s father, and not being out to Cara’s father, Pen worries she’ll be kicked out.
For those who were in long-term, same-gender relationships before marriage equality came to Ireland, the U.S., and other countries, these stories might sound quite familiar, and the fears of what would happen—legally, socially, etc.—with the loss of a partner were quite real.
Yet, while for some this might read like a slice of history, we’re not out of the woods yet. Many countries (including Australia, where I’m traveling now) have yet to legally recognize same-gender marriage. Same-gender couples still experience discrimination in countries where same-gender marriage is legal. In South Carolina, where I lived for over 10 years before I started traveling, there are no state or federal laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, and while federal policies during the Obama administration leaned toward interpreting “sex discrimination” as being inclusive of sexual and gender minorities, under the new administration, this is likely to change. Thus, as we often spoke about in LGBTQ advocacy circles, South Carolina was a place where you could get married to your same-gender partner on a Saturday and get fired (legally) for being gay when you go to work on Monday.
Through Pen’s personal struggles for recognition and recovery, Hood reminds readers like me how far we’ve come but should also be a reminder of how far we have to go—in countries throughout the world, and in our own backyards.
Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light, Cyril Wong
“Living is an endless piece of rope.” –from “Accelerando,” by Cyril Wong
I picked this collection of poetry up at Books, Actually, a lovely little independent bookseller in Singapore, and after skimming through a few lines, I was immediately moved and hooked. Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light is a collection about love, and time, and memory, and loss.
Rising above the chords and resonances of lovers past and present, a clear melody shines through—one of two men in love and the specter of death that comes between them. Their hours are running short, and yet memory elongates and turns time back on itself, drawing the seconds into hours and years and back again.
Wong’s language is beautiful moving, and the collection takes unexpected turns that shook and delighted me, including the motifs of Indian myths that are woven throughout but are queered and re-examined in tandem with these contemporary love stories.
This is queer poetry at its finest, philosophical and yet full of feeling, speaking to the universal via the personal. Let Wong break open your heart and suture it back together again.
And the Walls Come Crumbling Down, Tania De Rozario
I haven’t met Tania De Rozario, but a Singaporean screenwriter who is friends with her gave me her memoir when I traveled in Singapore last January. “I think you’ll relate to this,” she said, noting De Rozario’s search for “home,” the displacement she feels in the places she should call home, and her use of non-linear narration to tell her queer and feminist story.
De Rozario’s work did not disappoint. The memoir begins with the unraveling of the author’s long-term (if tumultuous) relationship with a woman who for so long was “home” to her, which coincides with a termite infestation in the house the author has physically made a home. From there, De Rozario skillfully brings the reader through the narrative past and present, connecting the dots between family trauma, coming out, Singaporean politics, and LGBTQ rights in a story that spans decades and continents.
Like so many of the works I love, And the Walls Come Crumbling Down is political but always firmly grounded in the personal. It is De Rozario’s personal story of love, loss, and displacement that moved me—and yet, the specter of the socio-political environment and its effects on De Rozario’s life are ever-present and infuse the fabric of De Rozario’s struggle to find “home.”
De Rozario’s work details a quest to find “home” while challenging the notion of what “home” even is. Read her memoir and let yourself be moved as you journey through this conundrum with her.
The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
So, I’ve clearly been on an Adichie kick lately (see my previous book list), but with good reason, because she’s amazing. The Thing Around Your Neck is her 2009 short story collection, which offers readers the chance to dive into a variety of characters’ lives, with a focus on the voices of Nigerian women—from those caught up in civil unrest to others who are lonely and searching for connection and still others who are still recovering from loss and grief (you’re sensing a recurrent theme in my book recommendations, aren’t you?).
While I feel that the long form of Americanah gave Adichie more space to fill out her characters and draw in her readers, The Thing Around Your Neck still moved me and pulled me squarely into worlds that I don’t have access to. Her stories deftly draw the minutiae of a moment, a memory, a feeling, while consistently keeping the larger view in focus, including the socio-political structures acting on the characters of any given story.
Especially relevant to our current state of affairs in the United States are the handful of stories she includes about characters who have or are trying to immigrate to the U.S. In fact, one features a woman waiting for hours to try to gain a visa to the States after her child dies in a politically motivated killing. I’d recommend anyone to let themselves be immersed in Adichie’s moving and socially critical work.
Stay tuned for the next installation of “The Traveling Bookshelf,” featuring five more books to add to your to-read list!
What have you been reading, and what do you recommend? Let me know in the comments below!