Family Life Is Fraught: Resistance & Change in Three New Novels

A no-nonsense book journal!

While looking over my 2022 book journal the other day, I wondered, How have I managed to read so few new books this year? “Must get out of my rut!” I scrawled. But the truth is, I  hesitate to mention books by living authors unless I am 100% enthusiastic, because the least criticism hurts writers’ feelings.  And they do find the blog!

Here is a catch-up column about three intriguing new novels, which I sincerely recommend.

Relationships with mothers can be fraught.  Bridget, the narrator of Gwendoline Riley’s edgy novel, My Phantoms, recently published by NYRB classics, has a wittily vexed voice that captivates us from the opening page.  Although she has moved to London to reinvent herself,  she can’t avoid contact with her eccentric mother, Hen, who lives in Manchester. 

Hen is an awkward, fragile, desperately lonely woman, who attends lectures and free art exhibits every night, but cannot engage with people.  Bridget wants nothing to do with her:  she will not even let her mother see her apartment.  And she is brusque with her on their yearly outing to a restaurant  to celebrate Hen’s birthday.  When  Bridget gives her a set of Elena Ferrante’s books, Hen keeps texting her to ask if she has “Ferrante fever.” 

Bridget does. Hen does not.

“I don’t know who anyone is 😢,” she wrote.

Later:  “Is Lena Lina or Lena Lulu?  Argh!”

And later:  “Still waiting for Ferrante fever.” 

Hen continues to try new things, embarking on package tours of foreign countries in old age.  Yet hers is in many ways hers a tragic life, to outsiders, and we do wish Bridget could be kinder – especially when Hen does cry – but we understand, oh so well, how difficult families are.

I expected Tessa Hadley’s new novel to make the Booker longlist this year.  It did not.  If you’re interested in the 1960s, you will be intrigued by Free Love, a brilliant novel that captures the personal and social changes of a decade defined by radicalism, rock and roll, thrift-shop fashions, and the destruction of the nuclear family.

 The action is catalyzed by the flight of Phyllis Fischer, a bored housewife and mother of two who flees to London after she falls in love with Nicky, a radical, fractious, twenty-something freelance writer who is the son of a friend.   Her absence devastates her family, because she even refuses to reveal her whereabouts to her staid husband.  Her rebellious teenage daughter, Colette, skips school, goes drinking, and dresses unconventionally, while angry 12-year-old Edmund goes to boarding school and tells everyone that his mother is dead.  

Yet Phyllis and Colette bloom in the chaos of of the vibrant ’60s, changing their ideas about history and politics, listening to the Beatles, and living in a run-down, but slightly hip, neighborhood in London.

One of my favorite novels is Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, characterized by magic realism inspired by Garcia Marquez and other South American writers.  But few writers are more eclectic than Allende.   Her latest novel, Violeta, set in an unnamed country in South America, is a spirited page-turner, translated from the Spanish by by Frances  Riddle.  

The vibrant narrator, Violeta, born in 1920 during the influenza pandemic and dying in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, writes a letter to her grandson about her dashing life, which was shaped by a wild, mischievous childhood in a house peopled by an eccentric extended family; a radical English governess who is a suffragette and changes the tenor of family life; Violeta’s rise as a businesswoman who designs and manufactures prefab houses for the poor,  her survival of a terrifying dictatorship, and  two marriages and a passionate affair with a roguish  pilot, who is the father of her two children.  

The first hundred pages are as good as anything Allende has written, and the rest is consistently entertaining.  

I loved these books, and hope that one or more will suit you too.

A Brainy Battle: Literature vs. New Books

At this year’s bookish cocktail party (that is, if there were such a party in plague times), I might have read just enough new books to hold my own in conversation. Perhaps the latest books are actually more like cultural commodities, wrapped in bright jackets and praised or panned by the critics. They are certainly ephemeral, as the new lists of Highly Anticipated Books of 2021 have already begun to eclipse them. I can imagine a reader wailing, “Wait, I’m still shopping for Christmas this year.”

We just can’t wait for the new books. If only we could all slow down. These 2020 books can be read any time–even in 2021. I consider a book “new” if it has been published in the last decade. For God’s sake, that’s much newer than Gilgamesh!

I admit, I read mostly classics and older books, because they are much better-written than contemporary books. I do not mean that there are no great living writers. There are. My mind is a blank at the moment, but I promise to list some at the end of this post.

Of course I am not as strict in my standards as the critic Joseph Epstein, a former editor of The American Scholar. In the essay, “Our Literary Drought,” recently published at the National Review, he laments the state of 21st-century literature, which he believes has been diminished by the Digital Age. He begins by talking about the flourishing of literature of 1955, the year the National Review was founded: Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, and Jorge Luis Borges were all working then.

And I agree the middle of the 20th century was a great time for literature, though my list of ’50s writers would include Jean Stafford and Mary McCarthy!

Epstein goes on,

When and why [the good times for literature] stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon? If you feel you need more time to answer these questions — a long, slow fiscal quarter, say — not to worry, for I don’t have any impressive answers to these questions either. Recent years have been lean pickings for literature.

Epstein notes that some periods of time are naturally richer in literature than others. He cites the Elizabethan age and 19th-century Russian as brilliantly productive ages. We can’t argue with that! But he adds that some periods of literature are lacklustre, and we are in one. The Digital Age has taken a plunge for the worse.

Epstein writes,

Everything about it, from 280-character tweets to Kindles, is anti-literary. What the Internet offers is information, whereas literature sets out in pursuit of something deeper. Reading online, I have found, is different from reading a book or serious magazine. I, who rarely skim books or magazines, online find my fingers twitching on my mouse when confronted by any piece that runs to more than ten or so paragraphs.”

I do agree about the problems of reading online–it is the madness of abundance. Online I keep clicking from article to article to find more news about a specific item–and paper keeps me calmer, perhaps because it limits the amount of reading.

Joseph Epstein isn’t the only one who yearns for more golden literary ages. Another fan of classics is Emily Temple at Literary Hub. During this plague year, she fond herself turning to older books. In her essay, “Want to Feel Better? Stop Reading New Books,” she writes about losing herself in Daphne du Maruier’s Rebecca, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, José Saramago’s Blindness, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Temple writes:

While reading each of these novels, and others, I found myself transported in a way that the newer books I was sticking between them could not accomplish, as good as I might have found them. And look, I read some damn good new books this year, like Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. and Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks.

Temple concludes these books helped her escape from the problems of 2020, but I wonder if that was all. Many readers eventually reach the point of wanting to go deeper in their reading and turn to the past. New books speak to current events and experience, and even historical novels are interpreted from a “modern” point of view every 20 years or so. It is always good to get some distance, to read from a different point of view, to come to realize that “now” is not necessarily “best.”

And now can I deliver on my promise to list some great writers of the day?

Of course!

Some of my favorite living writers are Louise Erdrich, Jayne Ann Phillips, Isabel Allende, Larry Woiwode, Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Tyler, Ellen Gilchrist, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Lethem, Gail Godwin, and John Irving.

Alas, some of the greats have died this year, among them Elizabeth Spencer and Alison Lurie. We will miss them.

Who are the great writers of today?

Reading Too Many New Books: Stunning Reads & Stinkers

I’m notorious for loving tan-paged classics published in earlier centuries, but this year I’ve ventured into the manic-depressive world of new books.   Too many new books can bewilder you.  You’re dazed by the quantity and unexceptional quality.  Sometimes you wake up and think, Did So-and-So at the East Coast Buzz really review that?

And so I’m taking a short break from my wobbling TBR of new books, but first let me share my list of Stunning Reads and Stinkers of the year so far.


  1. Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden.  A translation of this brilliant 2009 Russian novel was recently published by Columbia University Press.   The Jewish narrator,  Maya Klotsvog, dismisses the impact of Soviet history on her character, despite her tragic past.  Absorbed in love affairs and multiple marriages that ultimately hurt her family, she has a psychological explanation for other people’s errors, but does not examine her own.  The most extraordinary novel I’ve read this year.
  2. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.  A stunning, lyrical modern feminist retelling of Beowulf.
  3.  Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.  This retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein alternates two narratives, a fictional history of Mary Shelley and a narrative by a near-future doctor about the future of A.I.. This was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
  4. We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White.  In this beautifully-written novel,  two friends deal with political and social changes of the 1960s.  I recommend this to fans of Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Marge Piercy’s Vida.
  5. Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston.  A collection of reflective essays on living on a ranch in Colorado with affectionate Irish wolfhounds,  miniature donkeys, no electricity, and dealing with climate change.


  1. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict.  A very slight novel about actress Hedy Lamar. A disappointing Barnes and Noble book club selection.
  2. The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine.  This bon-bon of a book about intellectual identical red-haired twins who feud about grammar must be meant for the big screen.  To be read and forgotten.

How Many Pages in an E-book? or How to Ruin Your Reading Schedule

” Woman with Parasol” 1921 Henri Matisse

I often read books “from alternative timelines,” according to my cousin the cataloguer.  This whimsical category includes out-of-print books “nobody reads,” she says disapprovingly, by the likes of Pamela Hansford Johnson, Harriette Arnow, Edna Ferber, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Margaret Oliphant.  Public libraries do not generate business with such books, so one looks for them at used bookstores or university libraries.  

I will defend my reading of such books to the death, but I am out of the loop of modern culture.  And so I resolved to read  three new books this summer.  They’re remarkably easy reads (I’ve read four), so I plan to keep going.

Mind you, my attitude toward new books is:  don’t let them deflect you from your natural reading course. I can’t become one of those bloggers who devote themselves to schilling new books. And  I don’t want to  read the books everyone promotes, so I’m trying to choose carefully.   Much to my surprise, one of them has turned out to be the flavor of the month. “If ever a book didn’t need my review…” I wryly thought after I saw Emily Nussbaum on CBS This Morning.

I planned July as an easy month.  I decided this weekend to read a new Russian novel.  There are, however,  no page numbers in the e-book, and I  bizarrely had read only a tiny percentage of the pages in an hour.  And so I checked online:  it is over 500 pages.  That’s too much for a holiday weekend.

So much for schedules! And that’s why I seldom write anything on a calendar.

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