As autumn approaches, we’re up for the challenge of books that ask a lot from their readers—mentally and emotionally.
As a young, impossibly nerdy child, one of my very first obsessions was Tudor England. (Why, yes, I had a lot of friends, why do you ask?) So I thought I’d take to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novel based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, like a duck to water. Reader, I was wrong. Mantel plunges into the 16th century with a gusto that is as impressive as it is disorienting. Can’t keep track of all the men named Thomas? Pay closer attention! Unsure about the novel’s timeline, as often your only markers are religious holidays mostly unobserved these days? Look them up! But stick with it, and you’ll find yourself adjusting to the simmering chaos of Henry VIII’s reign and increasingly in awe of Cromwell’s ability to navigate this complicated and mercenary world. And by the novel’s end, you’ll be utterly astonished by Mantel’s ability to transport you there.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
The Bluest Eye
I read The Bluest Eye for the first time this spring, as part of an assignment for a class I was taking. What a dissonant reading experience—at once intensely pleasurable and supremely painful. I marveled at Toni Morrison’s word-perfect style in every sentence; her ability to find the exact right turn of phrase again and again is nothing short of genius, and the effect is sublime. Without these little bursts of delight at Morrison’s writing, it would have been impossible to follow 9-year-old Pecola Breedlove as she navigates self-loathing, rejection, isolation, sexual abuse and delusion in a white supremacist culture. Even with Morrison’s voice to guide the way, the temptation to look away was nearly constant. Reading this book will push you to your emotional limit, but, as with all of Morrison’s works, the reward for staying the course is transcendence.
—Christy, Associate Editor
Her Body and Other Parties
The opening story of Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection is the key to why this book is such a challenge: A woman with a green ribbon around her neck tells a frightful fairy tale of wifehood and motherhood, and as dread builds, she frequently stops the telling to instruct the reader in ways that supplement the story, from emitting sounds to committing small acts of betrayal and even violence. These demands steadily intensify the relationship between reader and narrator, and the reading experience becomes almost unbearably intimate the more she insists that you know what this fairy tale means. From this opening salvo, we are complicit in all the later stories, each one fantastical and horrifying in its exploration of the cruelties leveraged against women’s bodies. There are few books more emotionally demanding. I am undoubtedly changed by it.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Melina Marchetta’s 2009 Michael L. Printz Award winner is not the kind of novel in which you will find explanations of character history, setting and premise carefully integrated into opening scenes, patiently establishing the story’s stakes. Instead, the opening third of the book is more like stepping into what you think is the shallow end of a swimming pool, only to find yourself dropping down, down, down, nothing but cold water above you and no sense of which way to swim to regain the surface. Names, places, the past, the present, some kind of conflict all swirl around you like so many chaotic bubbles. Not to be all Finding Nemo about this, but you just have to keep swimming, because if you do, I promise you that Jellicoe Road’s payoff is among the most cathartic and stunningly plotted you’ll ever encounter. I’m in awe every time I read it.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Far From the Tree
Any book that closes in on 1,000 pages poses an obvious challenge, but Andrew Solomon’s National Book Award-winning study of parent-child relationships levels up by encouraging readers to examine a well-worn concept in a new light. Solomon spent 10 years interviewing hundreds of families to pull together the case studies featured here, all of which involve children whose identities do not match those of their parents. Inspired by his experience as a gay child of straight parents, Solomon compassionately lays bare the tension between a parent’s instinct to encourage children to reach their full potential and a child’s need to be accepted for who they are. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is a celebration of difference, even as it acknowledges the difficulties. It is impossible to finish this book without reconsidering your own family dynamics.