What We're Reading: What EW's books staff is loving this month
This month, we're recommending a pair of ingenious feminist-crime books, as well as some gorgeous literary fiction
Each month, EW’s books staff selects some of their favorite recent reads, whether new releases or older titles they’ve just caught up on. In addition, you can check out all of the books EW has covered over the past month here, including reviews and interviews. These picks are perfect for book clubs, beach reads, and (hopefully) sustained breaks from the iPhone. Read on below, and check out our column from last month here.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
I spent the better part of the first few chapters of Dead Girls feeling decidedly ashamed. Ashamed because I am guilty of the exact problem that author Alice Bolin so shrewdly dissects: that America is obsessed with dead girls. Whether they be fictional, like the victims of Law & Order; real like the victims of Serial and Making a Murderer; or highly sensationalized like the victims on Dateline or 48 Hours: Mystery.
The essay collection takes a good hard look at this fascination, but my shame was wholly misplaced: Bolin herself is just as addicted to the genre as the rest of us, so this isn’t a holier-than-thou scenario. Rather, the cultural criticism serves to help us all think a little bit more about what we’re consuming — and who’s being damaged by it. She also weaves in personal stories about her upbringing (by two librarians, one of whom received a late-in-life diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome), her stress-addled moved to Los Angeles, and her less-than-ideal college experience.
I’m admittedly deferential to fiction, so to find an essay collection that keeps me attentive is a feat in and of itself (despite my belief that I’m Zadie Smith’s No. 1 fan, I seriously struggled through this spring’s Feel Free). That there is an entire chapter devoted to the plight of Alexis Neiers, star of the reality show Pretty Wild and onetime Bling Ring perpetrator, doesn’t hurt matters. —Seija Rankin
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
In a year filled with exciting debuts, I hope readers make room for Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ harrowing Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
The book, as the author reveals in an afterword, is based on her experiences growing up in Colombia at the tail-end of Pablo Escobar’s terrorizing reign. It weaves between the perspectives of two young women who come from very different backgrounds: Chula, a 7-year-old who grows up in a wealthy family and a gated home; and Petrona, a 13-year-old who has to work instead of attend school in order to provide for her impoverished family, and who is hired as a maid for Chula’s family.
Thinking about the best debuts which have been published this summer — Tommy Orange’s There There, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, and on — the throughline is obvious, not to mention long overdue: the power of voices long kept out of popular culture finally getting the chance to tell their stories and reveal their talent. Ingrid Rojas Contreras fits neatly among that class. Her prose is simultaneously propulsive and poetic, reminiscent of Isabel Allende, and she’s got a feel for how to move plot — an understanding of how simple choices, in a life-or-death climate, can lead to profound consequences.
I tend to be weary of child narrators in adult fiction, and indeed Chula can be a limiting voice; but Fruit of the Drunken Tree deserves utmost credit for finding complexity in her worldview without sacrificing her innocence or naiveté. Chula’s fascination with Petrona gradually leads to a tight bond, and the latter’s relatively short chapters add clarity, packing an emotional punch as we come to know her world and inner-life. I was really taken with the book’s texture: the way each character — especially Chula’s mother, who grew up in poverty before moving into wealth — is realized with love and nuance, or how the lush, beautiful Colombian landscape contrasts with the bombings and civil unrest characterizing much of the country’s day-to-day. (“War always seemed distant from Bogota, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles,” goes one gorgeous passage. “The way it approached us was like fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”)
Fruit of the Drunken Tree offers a wake-up call for many. Chula’s family initially views the Escobar destruction as an irritant, an obstacle to going out to the movies or for a nice walk, before the danger is too close to brush aside. Petrona’s finds falling in love comes with its own dangers and complications. Privilege and family roles and the mechanics of crime are subtly interrogated, woven into Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ impassioned narrative. And at the center of it, throughout, is an eye-opening story of survival in a place history books and crime sagas (see: Narcos) would have us think we know better than we do. Listen to this new author’s voice — she has something powerful to say. —David Canfield
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott is having a moment. The best-selling crime novelist, who’s been publishing addictive feminist thrillers since the early 2000s, is on the cusp of seeing her work reach Hollywood: Three of her books are in active development for TV adaptations, including her new novel Give Me Your Hand, which has quickly emerged as one of her biggest and best-reviewed titles to date. I’m here to add to the chorus of praise: This is a stellar book.
Abbott’s speciality is dark, disturbing, psychologically arresting portraits of young women, and observing how they navigate specific spaces: cheerleading, gymnastics, the classroom. Give Me Your Hand moves the action to the laboratory, fertile new ground to explore ideas relating to control and biology.
We meet Kit, a teenager contentedly moving through high school who becomes compelled by her classmate, Diane, a brilliant chemistry student. As with most Abbott books it’s best to leave things unspoiled, so I’ll be brief here: The pair academically excel in the field of science together, and are inseparable — until Diane tells Kit a horrifying secret, relating to something she did in her past. Information is doled out selectively but smartly by Abbott, as she shifts between “Now” and “Then” chapters. The girls go their separate ways after Diane’s bombshell revelation, and as an adult, Kit continues to thrive, working as a researcher in a distinguished doctor’s lab. Once again, she’s functioning fine — until Diane shows up, a new member of the team.
This book is loaded with terrifying brilliance, and it’s one of my very favorite Abbott reads for the way it so sharply fuses its setting to its characters and ideas. Give Me Your Hand considers ambition with a mix of sly wit and explosive gender politicking, observing the effects of women navigating a male-dominated world.
One such potential effect? Rage. It’s a motif dissected through Kit’s work studying “premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” which affects a small group of women and can lead to intense mood swings. Abbott is certainly direct with the way she ties biology to social structures — and the heavy foreshadowing at times feels a bit too genre compared to the rest of the novel — but her insights are fresh and provocative, and the suspense factor never lets up.
Mostly, though, it’s Abbott’s take on friendship that lingers; Diane and Kit’s dynamic is fascinating throughout. Consider the moment Kit locks eyes with Diane, as an adult, for the first time: “The 17-year-old girl standing in that far corner of my head, the one glaring at me, needy, full of thunder and consequence.” Just real enough to send a chill down your spine. —DC
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The first thing I should tell you about Home Fire is that you should absolutely ignore the logline: “A reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone in a modern setting.” The second most people see the words “reimagining” they often lose interest, so I wouldn’t blame you if you just did the same. But trust me when I say that not only is that not an accurate description of this book’s vibe, but it greatly undersells it.
I picked up a copy because of Kamila Shamsie’s recent garnering of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but it was also longlisted for last year’s Man Booker prize. It follows a Pakistani family living in London, who are torn apart first by the father’s imprisonment by the CIA (he is killed on his way to Guantanamo) and then by the son’s disappearance into the Caliphate. It’s told in four different parts, each from a different character’s perspective, which serves to piece together what happened in a suspenseful way but also to offer insights into the many ways that jihad tears apart a community.
There’s no sensationalism in Home Fire; it doesn’t over-dramatize terrorism (the Islamic State is never even named, only implied as the organization in the story) and neither does it attempt to sympathize with any one side of the conflict. Rather, it humanizes everyone involved — from the family members who are put through the ringer by British intelligence, to the politician who is forced to take a hard line on the issue, to the son who finds himself in over his head. —SR
July’s Hottest Books
From the Corner of the Oval: Former Obama White House stenographer Beck Dorey-Stein writes a memoir that feels like the dishiest, most enjoyable political tell-all in recent memory. Read EW’s interview with the author.