As I’m now hard at work on my new novel as well as my other work, I’ll be posting less often than usual for a while but hopefully the quality of the books I’m recommending today makes up for that. (Think you can captivate my audience? See the postscript* if you’d like to pitch for a slot on the Sofa later this month.) These four: two novels, a memoir and a non-fiction, really spoke to me in different ways.
AN UNUSUAL GRIEF – Yewande Omotoso (Cassava Republic)
How do you get to know your daughter when she is dead? This is the question which takes a mother on a journey of self-discovery. When her daughter Yinka dies, Mojisola is finally forced to stop running away from the difficulties in their relationship, and also come to terms with Yinka the woman. Mojisola’s grief leads her on a journey of self-discovery, as she moves into her daughter’s apartment and begins to unearth the life Yinka had built for herself there, away from her family. Through stepping into Yinka’s shoes, Mojisola comes to a better understanding not only of her estranged daughter, but also herself, as she learns to carve a place for herself in the world beyond the labels of wife and mother. A bold and unflinching tale of one women’s unconventional approach to life and loss.
Why I chose it: Mojisola is a real favourite among the many protagonists I’ve met this year; her grief, flaws and courage in confronting the most painful circumstances imaginable really grabbed me by the heart. The author brings compassion, insight and a surprising lightness to this story of maternal loss set in South Africa – I bookmarked many poignant and beautiful passages but it is also very funny in places. In fact, there are several elements here that you wouldn’t remotely expect in a novel about grief. (Tempting as it is to discuss them, I’m not going to ruin it for you.) The result is indeed unusual, and memorable too.
MEMORIAL – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)
Benson and Mike are two young guys who have been together for a few years – good years – but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. There’s the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other. But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye. In Japan he undergoes an extraordinary transformation, discovering the truth about his family and his past, while back home, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates, an absurd domestic situation that ends up meaning more to each of them than they ever could have predicted…
Why I chose it: The paperback release of Memorial gives me a chance to remedy not having mentioned it before now. I read it in the summer, immediately before Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi which also involves a mother/adult child dynamic and cross-cultural conflict. Most books would have crashed and burned by comparison but Memorial held its own. It’s a bit quirky and the style and structure are fragmented but it works for the story. Washington milks the immense narrative potential of shoving two unlikely people together to great effect, as well as the couple who are coming apart. It’s really touching, sexy and funny and as if that wasn’t enough, there are tons of mouth-watering cookery scenes and a vivid sense of Japan.
THE FIXED STARS – Molly Wizenberg (memoir) Abrams Press
At age 36, while serving on a jury, author Molly Wizenberg found herself drawn to a female attorney she hardly knew. Married to a man for nearly a decade and mother to a toddler, Wizenberg had long understood sexual orientation as a stable part of ourselves but suddenly realized that her story was more complicated. The Fixed Stars is a taut, electrifying memoir exploring timely and timeless questions about desire, identity, and the limits and possibilities of family. Wizenberg forges a new path through the murk of separation and divorce, coming out to family and friends, learning to co-parent a young child, and realizing a new vision of love. The result is a frank and moving story about letting go of rigid definitions and ideals that no longer fit, and learning instead who we really are.
Why I chose it: A friend recommended this and I have rarely read anything that affected me so deeply. This is a searingly honest, searching and insightful memoir that must have taken huge courage, detailing what many would perceive as an unusual situation in a way that anyone who’s experienced anything similar will relate to (in hindsight, I missed the first of several signs when I was 32 with a two-year-old child.) I was occasionally frustrated with Wizenberg’s preoccupation with her own born-this-way v sexual fluidity conundrum – I don’t have one of those – but she is well versed in the subject, citing a lot of non-fic and research I’m familiar with, including that of Lisa Diamond. One of the rare times I feel real gratitude to an author. So thank you, Molly. Your story helped me to understand mine.
EMPIRE OF PAIN – Patrick Radden Keefe (non-fiction) – Picador
The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions – Harvard; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Oxford; the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations in the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing Oxycontin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis – an international epidemic of drug addiction which has killed nearly half a million people.
In this masterpiece of narrative reporting and writing, award-winning journalist and host of the Wind of Change podcast Patrick Radden Keefe exhaustively documents the jaw-dropping and ferociously compelling reality. Empire of Pain is the story of a dynasty: a parable of 21st century greed.
Why I chose it: I first heard about this giant tome of investigative writing at the 2020 Picador New Voices event and thought it sounded intriguing; I certainly never imagined that a year later it would be chosen by my book group. Having a dislike of very long books I really went at it with the hardback and 18 hour audiobook narrated by the author. There’s a lot more to this compelling and fascinating story than the shocking and tragic matter of the US opioid crisis and the incontrovertible role of the Sacklers; it’s an immersive portrait of America from the Depression era to the present day, a sprawling family saga and a chilling study in greed, narcissism and the lack of moral accountability of individuals, corporations and the justice system. It may make you lose all faith in human nature (temporarily). We called off book group because several members hadn’t read or finished it, went to the pub and ended up having a heated discussion about it anyway.
Have you read any of these or are you tempted?
Do I make this look easy? I’m putting a guest post slot up for grabs later this month. If you have something interesting to say on a subject that’s vaguely literary or cultural and would like to take over the Sofa for a week, let me know by Friday 12 November in the comments or on Twitter @isabelcostello.
What am I looking for?
No bitter rants! (If you’ve mastered the fine art of the balanced rant, that’s different.)
I’m particularly keen on anything independent/low budget/highlighting work by and about under-represented communities.
The post will not include a review and should not focus strongly on a specific book. (Of course it’s fine to mention one briefly if relevant.)
I will provide full details to whoever is chosen, assuming I get some suitable offers.