This installment: early Woodson, powerful J poems (nf); quarantined together at Christmas—a recipe for misery (f); Schriver’s incisive look at cancer (f); and Maynard’s direct experience with the malady (nf).
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
I love it when the universe drops a surprise on me and this one came as an abandoned book on the self-check counter. I picked it up (we’re tidying all the time) and discovered it was a book-length poem by this esteemed author from 2003. Lonnie, named for his dead father, writes poetry in school and it helps him sort out his jumbled life. Miss Edna, his foster mother, and Ms. Marcus, teacher extraordinaire, help bolster him against mean kids, tragic memories, and self-doubt. Nothing like an authentic voice to bring the message home.
Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Olivia returns from humanitarian work in Africa under quarantine. She’s been exposed to a virulent virus. This means her parents and 5 siblings are stuck with each other for a rare Christmas gathering and it’s a pressure-cooker of secrets and resentments. Her father writes scathing restaurant reviews, her mother clings to her upper-class legacy, self-involved sister Phoebe is planning her wedding, and the contrast to Olivia’s sacrificial life is hard for her to take. One secret arrives in the flesh and the subsequent shakeup leads to everyone painfully sorting out their destinies. A good read.
So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
On a roll with this author who tackles big subject unflinchingly. This one is cancer—the author’s best friend died of mesothelioma, related to asbestos exposure. Shep plans to get out of the rat race by escaping to a desert island but when his wife Glynis is diagnosed, all bets are off. It’s a grim downward trajectory but shot through with Shriver’s signature wit. Meanwhile Shep’s best friend and former business partner, Jackson, is wrestling with his own troubles, a daughter with a rare syndrome and a dreadfully botched elective surgery. Jackson is a brilliant ranter and a great mouthpiece for Shriver’s political and sociological bete noirs. An amazing denouement—magical realism for sure, but just what I wanted for these benighted folks.
The Best of Us by Joyce Maynard
And who would have thought that the universe would deliver another book about devastating cancer right on the heels of Shriver’s? Immersion in difficult topic, for sure, that sometimes felt like overkill, but I’m a glutton for this kind of “punishment.” Maynard finally met Jim, the love of her life and then he died on her. She takes us through the emotional and practical rigors of such a devastating experience, including the agony of some decisions that in retrospect proved wrong. Any redemption? Well it did bring out the best in them, stripped down to essentials at the too-soon end. Part of Jim’s legacy is this story—very moving indeed.
Back next week.