What We're Reading: EW's books staff recommends dramas that hit close to home
This month, our book recommendations hit pretty close to home
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 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 your iPhone. Read on for more, and check out our column from last month here.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
I have a confession to make: I missed the boat on this title. As book editors, it’s our job to be on top of the latest and greatest releases — to know what’s coming out when and whether we should recommend it to our own readers. But there are just so many titles and sometimes an email slips through the crack of your inbox. I discovered The Golden State thanks to a glowing review (from a publication who shall not be named) and immediately added it to my ever-growing queue. But this was worth the wait.
Golden State is told entirely in a first-person train-of-thought, and follows a new mother, Daphne, as she embarks on a road trip from San Francisco to a rural town in the middle of nowhere, California. She brings along her baby daughter and seeks refuge in a home owned by her late grandparents as she attempts to grapple with a few personal tragedies — the likes of which are revealed slowly throughout the book.
While the plot keeps you turning the page, it’s the insight and care with which Kiesling builds her main character that really hooked me. I’ve never had a child, but if I did I imagine I would approach it just like Daphne: Surges of love punctuated by fits of tears, bookended by waffling between never wanting to be away from your child and needed to be left alone at all costs. The intricacies of Daphne’s other relationships are fascinating, but the way that she’s free to feel all of those complicated motherhood feelings without judgement is what I’ll remember most. —Seija Rankin
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
I picked up Smarsh’s memoir quickly after it was longlisted for the National Book Award (Nonfiction), and I’m glad I did. I’d enjoyed reading much of Smarsh’s reporting and criticism in the lead-up to Heartland’s publication, but the prospect of getting through another treatment on the White Working Class of Trump’s America didn’t exactly leave me eager to start. Call it Hillbilly Elegy withdrawal.
Fortunately, Smarsh doesn’t demonstrate any interest in reductive talking points or narrow political analysis, the tired stuff of heartland “reporting” which never seems to advance the conversation. Instead she looks inward, chronicling a rich and painful family saga with the sort of hard-earned perceptiveness that reads as genuinely eye-opening. Smarsh grew up in Kansas, and bore witness to the destruction of the American working-class — a coordinated effort, she says, by forces too powerful and distant to fight back against. She reveals this plight through the story of her mother and her grandmother, the generations of women in her family who’ve fought for scraps.
At the risk of reducing the memoir’s value to one of the thousands of “this is the X we need right now” headlines, Heartland is an important book for this moment. Smarsh analyzes policies like Trickle Down economics and tears them to shreds, her persuasive combination of righteous fury and explosive intelligence a rather extraordinary weapon she wields time and again. There’s real pain here, of the kind you sense just in the way sentences follow one another, each period and comma providing a break, however short, to absorb the emotions and information and catch your breath. The intensity with which this was written is right there on the page.
Smarsh’s attempts to unpack the nuances of race in this discussion are particularly appreciated. She balances her sharp points about the way her rural, predominantly white community was devastated by political-economic forces with a rejection of the term “white working class” — hallelujah! — as a means of separating poor white folks from poor people of color, and maintaining racial inequities. “Whiteness,” Smarsh writes, is “imbued…with power” in American society.
Smarsh emerges as a writer, most potently, in her vivid encounters with the ironies of working-class life — her reflections on what it means to live poor can turn startlingly poetic. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages: “It’s a hell of a thing to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses, and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board, while your own body can’t go to the doctor.” —David Canfield
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Ordinary People has the bones of a novel you’ve likely read more than a few times: midlife crises, flailing marriages, suburban longing — the stuff of literary fiction clichés. It’s why Diana Evans’ success in crafting something wholly original, evoking authors ranging from Charles Dickens to Celeste Ng while still showcasing her unique voice consistently, is all the more impressive.
Evans’ writing is lacerating, if also tender in the way that the best observers of human nature need to be. She juxtaposes the malaise of two couples. There’s Michael and Melissa, living (surviving?) in a literal “crooked” house in South London, the former anxious over their fading love life and the latter over motherhood’s intrusion on her career as a fashion writer. Then we have Stephanie and Damian, she a suburbanite eager for the domestic life so many dread, he a researcher on “the effects of solar heat on large glass areas in multistorey blocks of flats.” (“He could never seem to abbreviate this description,” Evans observes with cutting humor. “Every word seemed essential.”) One other note: Stephanie is white, born to privilege and idyllic simplicity; Damian is black, son of a racial-political activist and academic who’s just died.
Evans (26a) doesn’t map out linear character arcs, which may prove frustrating for a reader expecting change or excitement or enlightenment. Instead she plots to the beat of despair. At times, literally: This is a musical book, of a sort of implicit soundtrack, with songs and artists cited and occasionally played, in scenes of aligning emotions. (The title, for instance, is drawn from John Legend’s 2004 record.) The transporting opening, a Friday night party celebrating Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory, blasts Jill Scott and Al Green and Jay-Z, sounds of empowerment and hope. The mood sours when Melissa and Michael drive home late at night. “What is a good rave if not an opportunity for love in the early hours?” Evans asks. “Overdue love. Kissing, touching that has been all but abandoned amid the duties of parenting, the frequent waking of a baby boy and unreasonable requests at dawn for Cheerios from a little girl.”
Evans, as that gorgeous little excerpt indicates, writes of these two marriages from a great distance, the power of her pen at times prodigious: She’ll survey the entire London landscape with a breadth that adds considerable weight to her novel, transforms the way we read her characters. (This is her first novel in a decade, and third overall.)
That there is no catharsis, per se, may make Ordinary People a tough sell. And maybe this brand of book — the kind that’s won Jonathan Franzen and many other, erm, white guys countless accolades — has gone a little out of style. (I’m not sure, in this case, that the overworn title helps.) But Evans shifts the paradigm with slick subtlety: Race is embedded in her story, as is disenfranchisement, and this satisfyingly complicates the more familiar drama. A fatal stabbing forever stains one couple’s lives, however remotely. A fridge magnet of the smiling Obama family hovers over Michael and Melissa, making for a brilliantly cruel visual, this uber-public vision of black success and perfection all but mocking their sadness. The death of Michael Jackson bookends an era of illusory hope. The encroachment of decline and mortality, the toll of the routine, causes Ordinary People’s four main players to feel trapped. But in Evans’ rendering, their world is vast. —David Canfield
You by Caroline Kepnes
I have another confession: I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this book at first. During last month’s iteration of the EW Book Club (shameless plug: Listen to us on Sirius XM on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. PT!) I had my heart set on another title, but the listeners voted for Kepnes’ stalker-thriller (and subject of a current Lifetime adaptation). And, well, the listeners know best. You was a fabulously good time.
The novel is told from the point-of-view of the stalker, beginning with the first day he meets his victim-slash-greatest-love (it depends who you ask). The reader is quickly let in on the fact that Joe is no ordinary protagonist and the crush he has on Beck, who fate sent into his bookstore, is no ordinary puppy love. He hacks into her email, he keeps watch on her friends, he follows her pretty much everywhere. But I should warn you: He’s also charming as all get out.
Yes, Joe is also no ordinary stalker. He’s freaking funny, and even though he’s doing really creepy stuff like stealing Beck’s underwear, he’s doing it while making some of the wittiest social commentary I’ve read of late. If you’ve ever lived in New York City or found yourself surrounded by a smug group of Ivy League grads you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about — and you just might connect with Joe more than you’d like. —Seija Rankin