The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai
When the New York Times Book Review named Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers one of the ten best books of 2018, I knew I had to get my hands on it, but that proved to be quite difficult. My local Barnes & Noble didn’t have it in stock in-store or online, and I was even out of luck with Amazon, who said the book would return “soon.”
So, when I visited Seattle for the new year, I stopped by Elliott Bay Book Company where I found a hefty stack of copies! I purchased my own, wrapped it up, and brought it home with me, finally cracking its spine in the last week of January.
In short, the book alternates between 1985-1990s Chicago and Paris in 2015, with a protagonist for each time period. While the book reads from an omniscient perspective, the first character who is introduced is Yale Tishman, a young gay man who works at Northwestern and lives as one of the spokes in the wheel of the Chicago queer community. As the book begins, it is immediately apparent that the AIDS epidemic is just beginning to sink its teeth into the metropolitan areas of the United States.
The second protagonist of the book—who is visiting Paris in 2015—is named Fiona. A close friend of Yale’s, Fiona travels to Paris in search of her estranged daughter, Claire. After tracking her down with the help of a private investigator, Fiona begins a somewhat awkward reunion process just as terrorism hits the city in the form of the very real November 2015 attacks.
Throughout the book, Yale’s and Fiona’s stories intertwine as men continue to contract and die as a result of AIDS, specifically those within their small circle of friends. Dotted with blood tests, hospital stays, and funerals, Fiona takes care of these men and lives 200 years by the time she reaches 25. If there is one area (there are more, of course) in which Makkai succeeds, it is developing the heightening sense of paranoia as people continue to succumb to AIDS-related illnesses and cultivating the helpless feeling of facing the government’s ignorance and a deathly disease that has no cure.
I particularly love reading books that take place in the years before I was born, especially when they involve important historical events. While The Great Believers is a fictional account of the Chicago AIDS crisis, this book opened my eyes to the fear that existed across the country throughout the eighties and into the nineties. If anything, this is what books are meant to do—transport readers to a different time, and perhaps even engender strong and new feelings.
While The Great Believers may not be the uplifting read many are looking for these days, it’s such a worthwhile and necessary contribution to the literary world. I think it would work particularly well as a movie—I kept thinking of actors who would do wonderfully in the roles introduced throughout the book—but perhaps this story is better held sacred as a novel.
Let me know if you read this one!
Purchase it from your local bookstore!
Elliott Bay Books
Books Are Magic
By Nicola Yoon
Every time I read a Young Adult (YA) novel, I’m blown away that it’s written by someone who’s likely in their forties. Nicola Yoon, the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun Is Also A Star, is 47 years old but expertly taps into the feelings of being a teenager: curiosity, angst, insecurity, and invincibility.
Aside from writing realistic teenage characters, Yoon is also one of the YA authors bringing diversity into the genre. Madeline Whittier, the main character in Everything, Everything, is a biracial 18-year-old with a single mother. Madeline’s caretaker, Carla, is a Hispanic woman who, in the middle of the book, illustrates her immigration story. Yoon’s efforts to make the genre’s characters more diverse is necessary and makes for more inclusive narratives that reflect the identities of the young people who read them.
Now, the reason that Madeline needs a caretaker in the first place is because she was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), a group of life-threatening diseases, as a baby. This diagnosis quarantines Madeline to the inside of her home—and she is never allowed to venture outside. From the beginning of the book, Madeline seems like the ideal daughter, having mostly come to terms with her disease and a lifetime of filtered air and looking through windows. She plays weekly games of Pictionary and Scrabble with her mother—who happens to be a doctor and constantly monitors her daughter’s vitals—and the two have movie nights and Friday dinners with French-themed menus.
It seems to be a rather monotonous existence until a new family moves into the house next door, bringing with them a teenage boy named Olly, who has a penchant for parkour and black clothing. From the moment Madeline seems him through her bedroom window, the reader knows the two are going to fall in love, even as Madeline repeatedly convinces herself that it’s not possible because of her disease.
The rest of the book details the growth and eventual demise of their relationship, with a surprise twist within the last 30 pages. The character that held my attention was Carla—she seemed to offer constant comfort and endless wisdom to both Madeline and Olly, including this little bit of insight:
“You aren’t living if you aren’t regretting.”
I’m excited to watch the movie adaptation!
Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship
By Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo
This book addresses two things I don’t know much about: cancer and poetry.
Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship (Milkweed Editions) is a book of letters written between a Yale theater professor, Sarah Ruhl, and her student, Max Ritvo, who is in remission from childhood cancer. Over the course of the book, the letters vary in length and depth and Ritvo’s cancer returns, even as he graduates from Yale and receives an MFA from Columbia University. The two share poems, soup, laughs, and challenges throughout.
The one thought that kept coming back to me while reading was the fact that neither writer is deeply religious or subscribes to one religion. Ruhl was raised in a Catholic family, declared herself an atheist in her teen years, and spends many letters talking about spirituality, reincarnation, and other aspects of Buddhism. Ritvo discusses religious themes in his writing but, in the end, doesn’t believe in an afterlife. At one point, Ritvo writes: “Study, as you’ve taught me, is secular worship.”
Juxtaposed with Ritvo’s illness, I found his spiritual exploration throughout the book interesting. When patients are in the grips of such a terminal disease, many often turn to God or some other higher power for comfort, courage, and spiritual sustenance. For some reason, I found Ritvo’s disregard for a god and the divine in the face of death extremely brave.
And his bravery doesn’t end there—through countless medical trials, rounds of chemotherapy, and scans with bad news, Ritvo’s writing only becomes increasingly prolific, and his discussions with Ruhl grow in depth and breadth. Ritvo died at the young age of 25, and I found that some passages flew straight over my head due to my lack of understanding of classic literature and poetry.
Still, it is easy to sense the love that the two writers have for each other. Repeatedly, Ruhl refers to Ritvo as her teacher, and Ritvo signs his letters with I love yous that don’t seem at all superficial or trite. Ruhl visits Ritvo as he receives treatment in Los Angeles, sends him a number of books, gives a blessing at his wedding, and reads his poetry to audiences when he is too weak to do it himself. The way the two care for each other—emotionally, intellectually, socially—is evident within the pages.
When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about how I would even approach publishing a book of letters between myself and another person with a terminal illness. When the two decide that publishing this book is a project worth pursuing, Ritvo thinks the 20 best letters should be chosen while Ruhl opts for a chronological approach. In the book’s final pages, Ruhl notes that she thought Ritvo wanted to choose the best letters because he didn’t like what was waiting for him when the letters ceased—his death.
A year after Ritvo’s death, Ruhl visits a Tibetan monk who recites a traditional one-year chant for Ritvo. After the chant, the monk says this:
“It is very sad to die young, to die early. On the other hand, when you wake up from a dream, it doesn’t matter how long the dream was. The important thing is that you wake up. You never remember how long the dream was.”
Read other reviews of Letters from Max:
Cuddling the skeleton — Slate
Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship — Publisher’s Weekly
Purchase it from your local bookstore!
Cellar Door Books
Elliott Bay Book Company
Books Are Magic
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
By Rebecca Traister
The term “year of the woman” was originally coined in 1992, after a wave of women were elected to Congress, and it seems like another wave has crashed as a result of the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump’s presidency has indeed proved catastrophic for a number of populations, sectors, and policies. But it has also lit a fire under some people, mostly women and people of color, who have shown up to the midterm elections, run for public office and won, and set to passionately organizing for progressive organizations and candidates.
In her latest book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Simon & Schuster), cultural and political critic Rebecca Traister investigates the fire that powerful men—Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, to name a few—have kindled and the female rage that has resulted from it. Touching upon the historical silencing of women, waves of feminism, sexual harassment, and the Trump presidency, Traister provides apt and necessary commentary on the power of women’s anger.
Something that shone brightly throughout the pages of the 252-page volume was Traister’s highlighting of women of color throughout activist history. She outlines the work of women’s suffragist Ida B. Wells, Tarana Burke of #metoo fame, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, and many more. Traister also credits those of other marginalized populations, citing the real instigators of the Stonewall Inn riots were queer and transgender people of color, not Danny Winters, the white man that the 2015 Roadside Attractions film, Stonewall, suggests.
Another interesting aspect of the book was the commentary on the many white women who, throughout history, have turned their backs on people of color. From the populations of white women who have voted for patriarchal, conservative, problematic white politicians (Roy Moore, Donald Trump, etc.), to suffragist Cady Stanton who turned on women suffragists of color and used racist tactics to further her own agenda after black men were given the right to vote before she was—Traister reveals that all is not forgotten when it comes to relations between white women and women of color.
It is out of this analysis that one of my favorite quotes in the book came:
“I think the reason why white women are the way they are is because the system is working for them and because they’re comfortable in their Lululemon and comfortable putting aside their law degrees. So they want us to shut the fuck up because the system is working for them.”
The quote is attributed to Saira Rao, a lawyer and editor who lives in Colorado and who, after becoming angry at the results of the 2016 election, ran for office against a Democratic incumbent congresswoman and won. In the quote, Rao is speaking of the white women she knows who label themselves as progressive and inclusive, yet still find themselves siding with the white aspect of their identities more than the female side.
A shortcoming of the book was its strong focus on events that have already received so much news coverage in the past. For example, instead of a rehashing of the Weinstein scandal, I would have appreciated a deeper look at the history of women’s work and feminism—perhaps more on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or a few pages on feminists other than Gloria Steinem and Florence Kennedy.
Read other reviews of Good and Mad:
The Power of Enraged Women — The New York Times
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger — The Guardian
Purchase it from your local bookstore!
Elliott Bay Books
Books Are Magic
Listen to an interview with Rebecca Traister on the Reading Women podcast.
In 2018, I read 53 books—squeezing in the 53rd, music critic Jessica Hopper’s alt-memoir Night Moves, just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Last year I was also repeatedly questioned if I had ever thought about starting a blog devoted to books or perhaps joining the Bookstagram community.
The truth is, I had thought about it. I was skeptical of both because I’ve been a strong proponent of strictly reading for pleasure and relaxation, and maintaining some sort of digital record of my reading lists sounded too weighty. But alas, I have caved.
This website will hopefully serve as a record, not only for myself, but for those who slide into my DMs asking for book recommendations or reviews. The title, Paperback Club, comes from an on-again, off-again Instagram book club community that a few friends and I have built over the past few years. If you’re in search of a new book to read, you can take a look at the hashtag. I started the Instagram book club with the mission of only reading paperback books, as they are usually more accessibly priced and easy to find—but I won’t be solely posting about paperback books here. As for this space, I have dreams of weekly book reviews and, eventually, even a monthly newsletter, perhaps? We’ll see.