Looking for something to read in April? We have a suggestion or four! Welcome to an experiment: a Fusion monthly reading list. Fix yourself a cup of cocoa, hunt down one of the seven dozen bookmarks you've managed to lose around your apartment, find a cozy spot, and dive in.
This month, we're all about visuals. We've got a novel about a woman who is "the kind of pretty it hurt to look at," a memoir about moving from black and white to an America rendered in dazzling Technicolor (at least, in the eyes of the author), a graphic novel that unfolds amid watercolor skies and mountains, and a collection of stories about putting a face on something as intangible and subjective as pain.
Let's dive in.
Ruby - Cynthia Bond
Set in the 1950s and 60s, Ruby's story spans from Liberty — a small, dusty town in East Texas —to New York City's bustling Greenwich Village. Ruby is the love of Ephram Jenning's life, a woman so beautiful to him that it pains him to look at her. He is devastated when she leaves Liberty for the bustle of New York — and the chance to see her mother — but sees Ruby return to her hometown, where both are forced to wrestle between their past and their present reality.
The book, author Cynthia Bond's debut, deals with some dark themes — abuse, violence, and the nasty things we do and risk in order to feel as if we belong. But it's also a story about love and the possibility of being redeemed. If you need any further prodding, know that the book is currently on Edwidge Danticat's reading list, too.
Little Failure: A Memoir - Gary Shteyngart
Little Failure follows Gary (né Igor) Shteyngart as he moves from his childhood home in Leningrad to that big, bright, bloated enemy: the U.S. A small, asthmatic boy with a penchant for writing stories (his first advance, for a story titled Lenin and His Magical Goose, came from his grandmother in the form of cheese), Gary inevitably and routinely proves a disappointment to his parents, earning the (mostly loving) nickname "Failurchka," or Little Failure.
This memoir offers not only a bitterly hilarious look at the manner in which we inevitably fail the people who love us at nearly every turn (by becoming a writer instead of a lawyer or, perhaps, by blogging), but at the difficulties that arise when attempting to straddle two different worlds as an immigrant in a strange place.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen - Danica Novgorodoff
Artist and graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff has previously given us a glimpse into the lives of a Kentucky firefighter and a Mexican immigrant who meet after a tornado, and a look into the world of fathers and sons destroyed and reconfigured by war. This time, she takes us to China as a young man, Deshi Li, sets out on a journey to find a ghost bride (also the topic of another novel you might like to check out) for his dead brother. Along the way, he meets Lily Chen, who rather complicates his mission for a suitable corpse, least of all because she happens to be very much alive.
Paste's review of the novel bemoans the chunks of story where Lily is not present, but praises the book for its experimental nature, the beauty of its images (sometimes reminiscent of older Chinese painting), and the scope of a story that includes elements of Westerns. In a very in-depth interview with Comic Book Resources, Davidoff recounts her inspiration for the story (an article in The Economist), how her time in China influenced the story and its artwork, and the process of creating the novel's imagery.
The Empathy Exams - Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison's collection of essays centers on her time as a medical actor — a person who carefully acts out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. With that as a jumping-off point, the book's essays seek to answer questions about the nature of pain and empathy, of how and why we care about the suffering, failings, and maladies of others, and how this casts a net over all sorts of topics, from street harassment to reality TV.
The Believer offers a bit of the book to whet your appetite:
Some med students get nervous during our encounters. It’s like an awkward date, except half of them are wearing platinum wedding bands. I want to tell them I’m more than just an unmarried woman faking seizures for pocket money. I do things! I want to tell them. I’m probably going to write about this in a book someday! We make small talk about the rural Iowa farm town I’m supposed to be from. We each understand the other is inventing this small talk and we agree to respond to each other’s inventions as genuine exposures of personality. We’re holding the fiction between us like a jump rope.
One time a student forgets we are pretending and starts asking detailed questions about my fake hometown—which, as it happens, if he’s being honest, is his real hometown—and his questions lie beyond the purview of my script, beyond what I can answer, because in truth I don’t know much about the person I’m supposed to be or the place I’m supposed to be from. He’s forgotten our contract. I bullshit harder, more heartily. “That park in Muscatine!” I say, slapping my knee like a grandpa. “I used to sled there as a kid.”
Knee-slappingly good stuff. Let me know what you think of this month's selections. A special thanks to Araceli for sending in her recommendations. If there's anything you're curious to read in May or if you're an author/agent/publishing house/glittering unicorn memoirist with a book coming out next month, let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.