Carla Jean Whitley

We All Want Impossible Things is ostensibly a novel about death—but it pulses with life.

Ash is a food writer who is separated from her husband, Honey. Their relationship is basically over, but they’ve been too lazy and cheap to file for divorce. Even so, Honey often visits, offering food and emotional support in equal measure. Their eldest daughter is away at MIT and mostly communicates via emoji-laden text messages. Their younger daughter often skips school to watch HGTV and has, on more than one occasion, caught Ash in the midst of a romantic encounter. 

Ash is surrounded by people; they wend their way through her world much like the cats that circle her feet. And Ash needs all of them, because her best friend, Edi, is dying. 

Edi and Ash have been in each other’s lives since nursery school. They love each other well, quickly forgiving sanctimonious moments but just as easily calling each other on their bull. For three years, Edi has had ovarian cancer, and now her doctors are predicting that she will die in a week or two. Every hospice in New York City has a waitlist, so Ash recommends an option near her home in western Massachusetts, and Edi’s husband reluctantly agrees.

But death doesn’t come quickly. Instead, We All Want Impossible Things is full of moments both mundane and painful, hilarious and heartbreaking, as Ash waits for life after Edi. The complications of love, parenting and saying goodbye all mingle together in rich detail as Ash, who is nonreligious, seeks some sort of divine kindness in the face of death.

Catherine Newman, who has previously authored two memoirs and several books for children, drew from her experience of caring for her dying best friend (which she wrote about in the essay “Mothering My Dying Friend,” published in the New York Times in 2015) to craft her first novel for adult readers, and she fills it with heart-rending, lovely moments.

We All Want Impossible Things is full of moments both mundane and painful, hilarious and heartbreaking.

A writer’s parents have both died, and their physical space will be gone soon. Back at the family home near Boston, an estate sale will clear out belongings amassed by her parents during the decades of their lives. A real estate agent will list the home. But their memory—especially that of her mother, most recently deceased—lives on with the writer.

She wanders the streets of London, a meandering journey that takes her from the London Eye to museums to the theater. She is surrounded by people but rarely in conversation with them. Instead, she recalls a trip made with her mother, whose dramatic, colorful personality continues to keep the writer company.

Though she never introduces herself by name, the narrator of Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of This Book welcomes the reader to join her in processing her mother’s death. McCracken slips between action, memory and internal monologue, seamlessly exploring her narrator’s world with no border between the internal and external. The writer intersperses observations about the writing craft with these recollections. The genre of the resulting tale is certainly up for debate: Is it autofiction? Memoir? A novel? McCracken even inserts cheeky asides about what makes a book fiction, further confusing the line between narrator and author.

“I used to not believe in plot because I wasn’t interested: All my plots were about time,” she writes—and this novel follows that rule. “That might have been because not much had happened to me, not so much as a broken bone. Then a few things did befall me, and I understood plot in a different way: I discovered that a single event could alter the course of a life.”

Readers who enjoy tales of quiet, internal reflection will find themselves right at home here. Regardless of label, The Hero of This Book is a thoughtful exploration of the lived experience of grief.

The narrator of Elizabeth McCracken's The Hero of This Book doesn't introduce herself by name, but she welcomes the reader to join her in processing her mother's death.

Lynn Melnick became a fan of Dolly Parton’s music after hearing “Islands in the Stream,” a duet with Kenny Rogers, while checking into rehab as a teen in the late 1980s. Parton was already decades into her successful country music career, with songs like this one also finding a home on pop charts. But she was a joke to the people in Melnick’s Los Angeles circles. “Islands in the Stream” was the first Parton song Melnick had heard start to finish, and it became her gateway into a life of fandom.

In I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, poet Melnick analyzes the 22-track Dolly Parton playlist that she’s listened to for the past decade. As she examines Parton’s work, Melnick excavates her own past and shares what this music has meant to her over the years. Parton is a symbol of femininity and goodness, and Melnick has been inspired by Parton’s triumphs as she’s faced numerous traumas and struggles: The cocaine and whiskey Melnick used to mask the memory of being raped at 9 years old. The abusive boyfriend who kept popping up years after she left him. Deaths of family and friends. The retraumatizing effects of living as a survivor in rape culture.

While each chapter is personal, Melnick also brings outside analysis to her narrative, weaving together cultural criticism and academic research to place these songs in a broader context. And though Melnick describes herself as a die-hard Parton fan, she’s also willing to critique her hero. She examines some of the singer’s less admirable choices, such as naming a dinner show “The Dixie Stampede” or referring to the sex worker who inspired Parton’s look as “trash” and a “trollop.” In general, Parton has a knack for political neutrality, which can frustrate fans like Melnick. But Melnick also praises her idol’s charitable giving, her readiness to defend queer rights and the ways she has modeled what it looks like for a woman to make her own way in the world.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis of a beloved icon whose relevance endures.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir about trauma and Dolly Parton; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis.

Poet and author Juliet Patterson was in her 40s when her father, James, died by suicide. James was a child when his father, Edward, died by suicide. And Patterson’s mother, Carolyn, was raising young children when her father, William, died by suicide.

Patterson spent more than a decade trying to make sense of this family history, repeatedly visiting Pittsburg, Kansas, the city her father, Edward and William all called home. It’s an old mining town with a surface pockmarked by sinkholes, scars of past industry that may have also left marks on the town’s residents. As Patterson researched the men in her family tree and suicide itself, she wondered about the effect this wounded history could have had on her family.

The result of this meticulous research and soul-searching is Sinkhole: A Natural History of Suicide. The memoir is at moments reminiscent of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Like Williams, Patterson surveys both the land around her and her inner emotional landscape. She searches for connections between the Industrial Revolution’s effects on society and her family’s repeated losses before ultimately recognizing that every tragedy stems from numerous influences.

Patterson’s poetic sensibility informs her prose as she weaves together ideas about family and research about land in a lyrical way. She’s looking for answers in Sinkhole, but the path that leads to a suicide isn’t linear. It’s more akin to a sinkhole, Patterson writes, spreading and consuming everything around it.

Juliet Patterson combines her own soul-searching with a decade’s worth of research in Sinkhole, a lyrical memoir about her family's history of suicide.

“I’m not happy.” Those three words set the end of novelist Elizabeth Crane’s marriage into motion. After 15 years of repeated promises from Crane’s husband that he wasn’t going anywhere, he changed the narrative. During those years, he had also promised to tell Crane before he became involved with someone else. That promise he kept.

But a relationship is a living thing, and as Crane writes her way through her marriage, she reveals shifts that were taking place all along. In This Story Will Change, Crane uses her narrative skills to excavate her relationship.

Crane (The History of Great Things) writes in the third person, creating emotional distance as though she can objectively describe the dissolution of her own marriage. This technique makes the memoir read more like a novel, akin to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation with short, punchy chapters and unflinching self-analysis. (One chapter is, appropriately, titled “Doesn’t This All Seem Pretty Common and Not Unusual or Even Awful at All in a Long-Term Marriage?” Another chapter, which is only three sentences long, acknowledges that this is a one-sided story, the wife’s story.) But the occasional shift into first person jars the reader into recalling that this intimate recollection is actually the author’s own experience.

Repeating themes surface throughout this retelling, just as a couple often revisits the same arguments throughout their relationship. Among them is Crane’s husband’s claim: “I don’t think you’d be a good mother.” These words haunted Crane for years—until she spent time with an old journal and realized her husband had never actually said that at all. She had sharpened his actual comment—that she would be a good mom but would worry a lot—into a weapon she used for self-flagellation for years. Memory is unreliable, and our own stories shift through faulty recollection.

As Crane recounts separating from her husband and setting up a temporary home with a friend in New York City, pleasure mingles with pain. Sublimely happy moments—a first Christmas without her husband—dissolve into her sadness at being alone. But a post-split tattoo reveals Crane’s ongoing optimism: “It says love. With a period after it, like a decree,” she writes. “I still believe in it. Sometimes like Santa. But I do.”

A relationship is a living thing, and as Elizabeth Crane writes her way through the end of her marriage, she reveals pleasures mingled with pain.

Caroline Muller’s life is a fairy tale. She doesn’t come from much, but her parents did all they could to help her be successful, and by 21, she was an Olympic gold medalist who held the world record in the women’s marathon. But as Caroline grew up, her body changed—and so did her gait. A misstep while training sent her stumbling, ending her athletic career and landing her in a rehabilitation hospital. There she finds what will become her new purpose: a hulking, handsome man she knows only as Finn.

Finn and Caroline reunite years later, at which point she learns that he isn’t a former hockey player or some kind of athlete, as she’d assumed. He’s Prince Ferdinand Fieschi of Lucomo, a tiny, wealthy European country wedged between France and Italy. And Finn, 10 years Caroline’s senior, is as taken with her as she is with him. They fall fast, but he sets limits: He won’t be intimate with her until they’re married, and they won’t marry until she’s spent 10 days in the castle, gaining insight into life as a princess.

Barbara Bourland’s third novel, The Force of Such Beauty, depicts Lucomo and the Fieschi family’s opulence in lavish detail, from the sumptuous fabrics to elaborate events. But Caroline isn’t a Disney princess, and Bourland pushes past the “happily ever after” of a royal wedding and focuses on what comes next. It quickly becomes apparent that Caroline’s fairy tale is more akin to a cautionary fable. 

Caroline’s new royal status offers a remove from even the slightest discomfort, but behind the public facade, she’s depressed. The Crown controls everything in her life, from her friends to her reproductive health: “I was a paper doll. Tabs held my dress on. Hands moved me from place to place.” The daily regimen of exercise, plain meals and evening events becomes her prison. She won’t receive her promised budget until she delivers the throne “an heir and a spare,” and even then she’ll find limitations on her charitable donations—and her husband’s attention.

Bourland draws inspiration from real-life royalty and the fantasies that are constructed for the outside world, in particular the lives of Charlene, Princess of Monaco, Diana, Princess of Wales and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Rich in emotion and luscious descriptions, The Force of Such Beauty is a careful dismantling of royalty that leaves readers wondering if any fairy tale is worth our desire.

Drawing inspiration from real-life royalty and the fantasies that are constructed for the outside world, Barbara Bourland’s third novel leaves readers wondering if any fairy tale is worth our desire.

Ten days after ending her engagement, CJ Hauser (Family of Origin) joined a scientific expedition to study cranes. She felt like a fraud: Should a person take such a trip days after a relationship’s end? Should a writer—a novelist, no less—take up space on a scientific excursion?

As she wrestles with these questions in the titular essay of The Crane Wife, which received over one million views after its July 2019 publication by The Paris Review, Hauser compares the dissolution of her relationship with her ex-fiancé to the tale of the crane wife. In that fable, the bird wants so desperately to be with a man that she spends every night plucking her feathers, tricking him into seeing her as a human woman. She withers, ignoring her own needs, but succeeds in becoming what she thinks the man wants.

The 16 other pieces in Hauser’s memoir-in-essays likewise explore love’s many forms with frank, raw honesty, charting an artful path through one woman’s experiences. Hauser often draws from both myth and the mundane as she seeks to understand her relationship to the world. She explores the aftermath of romantic relationships, particularly those in which she lost her connection to not only a partner but also his child, as well as an array of her particular fascinations, such as with The Wizard of Oz and with the romance between Mulder and Scully in “The X-Files.” Hauser’s wry, introspective investigation of her assumptions about love will likely free readers to examine their own personal narratives as well.

Sometimes Hauser intentionally peels apart commonly intertwined ideas. For example, in “Uncoupling,” she challenges her ideas about parenthood and her body. Hauser separates the ideas of being a parent, giving birth and dating someone she might want to parent alongside. As she examines these desires, Hauser also interrogates her body: What are her tits (her word of choice) for if they aren’t for feeding someone or giving someone else pleasure? She explicitly rejects the idea that her body exists to serve other people and asks, “Who told you these things went together? What stories were you told, and not told, about the shape of love, the shape of yourself, the shape of a happy life?”

When her writing students claim that Hauser dislikes happy endings, she turns the whole idea of happy endings on its head. “The rare happy ending I appreciate is one that makes room for the whole painful fact of the world at the same time it offers the reader some joy,” she writes. The Crane Wife embraces this philosophy again and again as Hauser excavates her past loves and losses, thoughtfully examines them and declares the pain of love to be worth the risk.

In this collection of essays, CJ Hauser excavates her past loves and losses, thoughtfully examines their aftermath and declares the pain of love to be worth the risk.

The world is on fire—metaphorically, yes, but also sometimes literally. Climate change is having its way with Earth, altering so many landscapes across the world. Yet our time here is limited; even as we try to intervene, our individual bodies are breaking down.

In the face of these dueling realities, the late nature writer and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez still celebrated the world around him. His posthumous essay collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, is an apt swan song, an ode to places both far-flung and close to home.

The essays, some previously unpublished, span from 1989 to the final years of Lopez’s life, which ended on Christmas Day 2020. They spring from a variety of sources—responding to a photography collection depicting the American West, paying homage to the Western writer Wallace Stegner, documenting Lopez’s own global explorations—but together they offer insight into the drive and heart of a thoughtful observer of the modern world. Lopez wrote that his life’s mission was “to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same,” and that mission is tenderly woven throughout these pieces.

As he explored the planet, Lopez also turned his attention to his interior landscape. In one essay, California’s terrain reminds him of the freedom of his childhood, when the miles around Los Angeles were still agricultural. But it also prompts him to reflect on the pedophile who abused him, and the ways that trauma shaped him for decades afterward.

The collection is organized in a way that brings its focus home, with the final pieces highlighting both the Oregon woods where Lopez lived for half a century and his dawning awareness that the end was near. He wrote, “I have traveled to nearly eighty countries doing research as a writer, and when I am asked where I would most like to go in the world, I always say the same thing: here. Here is where I have had the longest conversation with the world outside myself. Here is where I have tested the depths of that world and found myself still an innocent. Here is where the woods are familiar and ever new.”

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World is a powerful reminder from a great writer that we can learn about ourselves from the world around us, and that we have an obligation to care for the Earth as we care for ourselves.

Barry Lopez’s posthumous essay collection is a powerful reminder that we have an obligation to care for the Earth as we care for ourselves.

When college student Salo Oppenheimer’s Jeep tumbles off a road near campus, two of the vehicle’s passengers—Salo’s girlfriend and a close friend—are killed on impact. A third, the friend’s date, is badly injured and transfers colleges. While Salo’s physical injuries are barely noticeable, his emotional scars will shape the rest of his life.

Despite Salo’s skepticism about his ability (or even if he deserves) to be happy, he marries and fathers triplets. His wife, Johanna, wants children more than anything, so she endures fertility procedures to conceive Harrison, Lewyn and Sally. But the triplets don’t fill the emotional vacancies created by her husband, and when the children leave for college, Johanna tells Salo she’s going to return to the couple’s remaining blastocyst. Seventeen years after their births, the Oppenheimer siblings reluctantly welcome a fourth.

In The Latecomer, Jean Hanff Korelitz (The Plot) guides readers through the Oppenheimers’ tumultuous—and often emotionally impoverished—family history. The novel sprawls across 45 years and more than 400 pages, offering each segment of the family ample time to tell their stories: the parents, the triplets and the latecomer herself, Phoebe.

Korelitz embeds a vast range of details within the tale, from the procedures necessary for the children’s births to the art collection that pulls Salo away from his family, from the family’s Jewish history to a character’s fascination with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An extensive network of subplots helps to define the characters’ relationships to one another, though all this groundwork-laying can feel frustrating; the promised title character, whose birth is an intrusion to her siblings’ lives, isn’t mentioned until more than 100 pages in and doesn’t step to center stage until the novel’s final third. But this delay allows Korelitz to develop both the rich plot and the nuanced characters who populate it.

Ultimately, Phoebe’s late arrival encourages the rest of the Oppenheimers to realize how their father’s life-changing car crash altered all of their lives. The Latecomer’s blending of family history and research explores how generational trauma can change everything, even for those who don’t know about the incident at its center.

In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s rich family saga, 18-year-old triplets receive a fourth sibling, forcing the family to reexamine their bonds.

In the mid-20th century, air travel was considered glamorous, even romantic. Federal regulation kept fares high, and passengers were mostly businessmen en route to work destinations. And what did those men want to see at the end of a long work week? A blushing, girlish attendant who doted on them—or so the airlines assumed. A new pair of nonfiction books offer insight into the sexism women faced in the early decades of commercial flight, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it.

Cover for The Great Stewardess Rebellion by Nell McShane Wulfhart

The Great Stewardess Rebellion recounts the midcentury fight to get airlines to overturn their sexist requirements for flight attendants. In the 1960s, stewardesses were often fired after their 32nd birthdays, or upon marriage, or upon becoming pregnant—whichever came first. Their continued employment was dependent on regular weigh-ins, and they were required to meet other physical expectations, too, such as cutting their hair to their employer’s standard or wearing gloves while in uniform.

Journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart traces flight attendants’ union and legal battles throughout the 1960s and ’70s, focusing on two women whose experiences help make the political personal. Patt Gibbs was unconcerned with age limits when she applied to American Airlines at age 19, since 32 seemed impossibly distant, and she happily monitored her weight to better her chances of being accepted, dropping from 121 to 110 pounds before submitting her application. However, once Gibbs was hired and she saw how poorly she and her colleagues were treated, she became involved in union work—reluctantly at first, then as a passionate advocate for better pay and fewer discriminatory rules.

Like Gibbs, Tommie Hutto also became enraptured by air travel as a young woman. She became an American Airlines flight attendant after college graduation, as a way out of her conservative Texas surroundings. Hutto, too, became involved in the union, and as she and Gibbs sought better treatment for the women who staffed every flight, they transformed from adversaries to allies.

Wulfhart tells the story of airline unions through Gibbs’ and Hutto’s experiences while weaving in the tales of dozens of other bold women—such as Sonia Pressman, who fought for airline industry change as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Dusty Roads and Jean Montague, American Airlines flight attendants who brought the industry’s discrimination to the EEOC’s attention; and Cheryl Stewart and Sharon Dunn, Black flight attendants who challenged their colleagues’ racism. With stylish flair, The Great Stewardess Rebellion explores the nuances of these spirited women and the sexism they battled.

Cover of Fly Girl by Ann Hood

While Wulfhart reveals how women fought to change air travel, Ann Hood paints a portrait of how air travel shaped one woman’s life. Hood (The Book That Matters Most, The Red Thread) is now a bestselling novelist, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she was a TWA flight attendant. She always wanted to write, but first she wanted to see the world beyond her Rhode Island home, especially after falling in love with air travel when she took her first flight to Bermuda as a teen. 

Hood’s memoir, Fly Girl, brims with details and personal anecdotes that air travel buffs will love. She recounts both the horrifying ways that misogyny affected her workplace, including unwanted advances from badly behaved passengers, and happier memories of the glamorous days of flying, when stewardesses could bring home sizable paychecks thanks to the work of the flight attendants’ unions. However, as the industry changed in the 1980s, Hood experienced furloughs and had to take jobs with less affluent airlines, bouncing from plane to plane. Through all the ups and downs, jet lag was her normal.

With time, Hood’s self-confidence grew, with regard to both her ability as a flight attendant and her understanding of people and cultures. She began to use time in the jump seat to write, and steadily she made her way toward the writer’s life she’d always dreamed of.

“Life unfolds on airplanes,” Hood writes. “People are flying to funerals and weddings, they are on their honeymoon or leaving a partner, they are carrying a newborn on their first flight to meet grandparents or taking a kid to college or on their way to adopt a baby. And they fall in love.” In Fly Girl, Hood paints a first-class portrait of chasing your dreams and coming of age in the sky.

Two nonfiction books render the complex lives of women during a bygone era of air travel.

In 1955, hundreds of thousands of women disappeared. They were oppressed mothers and wives. They were brides on their wedding days and switchboard operators harassed by their male managers. Later reports—at least, those that were publicly acknowledged—omitted a key detail about this mass disappearance. The women didn’t vanish; they became dragons.

As Kelly Barnhill writes in When Women Were Dragons, “people are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” Just look at our own world, in which willful silence around the injustices of the past affects how history is taught (or isn’t taught) in American schools. The mass dragoning meets a similar fate, but despite her best efforts, Alex Green can’t forget: “I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence—an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.”

Alex’s Aunt Marla was one of the disappeared women. She was also one of the most influential people in Alex’s life; after all, Marla gave birth to Alex’s cousin and best friend, Beatrice. After Marla’s dragoning, Alex’s parents raised the two girls as sisters, but questions about Marla’s disappearance lingered at the edges of Alex’s consciousness.

Barnhill writes from Alex’s point of view as an adult, looking back on a remarkable period in history that coincided with her formative years. Through teenage Alex’s perspective, readers witness dragons marching with civil rights protesters—because if we aren’t all free, none of us are free. Some dragons seem drawn to one another, rather than to the men they left behind, in a way that young Alex accepts intuitively. Meanwhile, Alex examines her relationship with Beatrice while reflecting on their mothers’ complicated sisterhood. And interspersed throughout these events, Barnhill includes research documents that Marla left in Alex’s care, offering thoughtful context for this eerily familiar world.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill, bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years. A close examination of the patriarchy and cultural inequalities, When Women Were Dragons is fantasy that is both political and personal.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years.

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