Note: more from 2014.
This installment: underwear in Brooklyn with a Jewish slant (f); syphilis in Medieval times (f); transgender adoption (nf); a modest mountain journey (nf); when people who shouldn’t have kids do so anyway (f); and native woes in Canada (f)
Sima’s Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross
Sima, who runs the eponymous shop from her basement in Brooklyn, needs a new assistant. In walks Timna, beautiful and lost. She turns out to be a natural in the trade. Sima develops an obsessive relationship with her and we gradually learn about what hole she fills in Sima’s life. The neighborhood is Orthodox though Sima’s not a follower, and Timna’s Israeli and (kind of) engaged. Very rich local color and character development—a thoroughly satisfying novel.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal
They call it a teen book but since everyone grows up early in the Middle Ages—and dies early (by our standards) too, and syphilis is a prime theme, I think it’s of interest for adults as well. Scandinavia, full of the political, territorial jockeying we’ve gotten to know in the marvelous Mantel books. Marriage is the primary tool for sewing up alliances, no matter what the age of the bride to be. We follow young seamstress Ava, black Midi with her split tongue, scurrilous power hungry Nicholas, and the benighted royal Lunedie family afflicted with “Italian fire.” Fairy tales are referenced, but most of the action really gets down, i.e. all those tete-a-tetes with the king at stool—and he suffers from IBS. Fascinating, disturbing.
Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers by Chris Beam
What a challenge, with so many conflicting elements: family reactions, school and peer reactions, decisions about how far to take the transformation, and what’s possible with economic and psychological constraints. Beam started volunteering at a marginal alternative high school for LGBT kids. When one, Christina, got into trouble, Beam ended up adopting her at 17. Lots of times it seemed impossible or severely disappointing, coupled with the expected territory of adolescents challenging parental authority. But Beam and her partner hung in there, offering support and connections (because that’s what moms do) even when they had to move from LA to NYC leaving newly adult Christina behind. Christina’s now doing well, counseling at risk people, but others in her peer group are still floundering, screwing up, and in one case in jail. Brave, candid, fascinating.
Almost Somewhere: Twenty Eight Days on the John Muir Trail by Suzanne Roberts
I guess you could dub it “Mild,” a play on the title of that wildly successful book on a similar theme. Roberts hiked with companions for only two months without huge challenges and isolation. She was 23 and wanted something post-college that would kick-start her adult life. The friends who came along: ex-roommate Erika, competent and competitive. And Dionne, a closeted anorexic whose boyfriend hoped the experience would cure her. Also on the first leg: a guy they picked up and another who attached himself to them. Both ended up being freeloaders and were soon spun off—whew. Quotes from Muir and frequent blasts of feminist theory and practice are woven throughout. Some scares, a little hardship, but lovely times as well. As an inveterate armchair traveler, I was glad to come along.
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
Walter and Dorothy probably shouldn’t have had kids or even been together, but first Parisa, then Thea came into the world while Dorothy sank into depression and Walter, a librarian, did what he could. So the girls essentially brought each other up. Parisa’s the glamor puss, Thea’s the plainer narrator. Pregnant Parisa kicks out her husband—she’s pretty mercurial—and Thea comes to help and ends up bonding with her new nephew, X (for Xavier). Then Dorothy and her young “friend” Joseph descend on this fractured household. Thea has her own love troubles. But ultimately this gloriously messed-up family comes through to produce a funny, irreverent, eccentric tale of survival.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
What a tragic story. Two orphaned Indian boys, Xavier and Elijah, meet at residential school in the early 1900s. Elijah’s aunt Nisha manages to spirit them back into the Canadian bush where they learn necessary survival skills including hunting. These come into play in spades when the pair enlist and are sent to the trenches in WWI. But Xavier becomes a monster of sorts, a killing machine (shades of the wendigos, bewitched folks so dangerous they must be slain for the good of the tribe). Painfully graphic, very arresting.
Back next week.