Where the Light Gets In by Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Publisher/Year: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Narrator: Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Length: 5 hours, 26 minutes
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A memoir about Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s complicated relationship with her mother, Linda, who was diagnosed with an early-onset rare form of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia in 2014.
Why I read it: I know Williams-Paisley as an actress, but I also follow her on Instagram just to see what she’s reading — it turns out we have very similar tastes in literary fiction! I love memoirs and this one seemed interesting. I was curious to see what kind of book she’d write (also: she strikes me as the type of celebrity who could believably write their own book rather than have it ghostwritten).
What I thought: This is a sad and illuminating memoir. In a relatively short period of time, Linda went from securing million-dollar donations for large foundations to being unable to speak and needing full-time care. Self-conscious at first, the family finally (and with Linda’s consent) decided to be honest with people about what was happening. Williams-Paisley is blunt about her anger and grief over seeing her mother’s decline, though she’s also honest about how she’s somewhat removed from the situation, living out of state with her own family. Much of the day-to-day caregiving fell to her father, who took on the role to the point of burnout in order to keep Linda at home — rather than an assisted living facility — for as long as possible. The book ends with the family in kind of a weird limbo: Linda’s dementia is progressive, but she’s also gone past all of the markers for life-expectancy with this disease. It’s uncharted territory for them.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Publisher/Year: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Source: Personal copy
What it is: Told from five different perspectives in two different timelines, the book is a modern-day dystopia in which abortion and IVF treatments have been outlawed in the United States and a personhood amendment has been passed, granting more rights to embryos than the people carrying them. Single would-be parents hoping to adopt are also out of luck, as only married couples are now allowed to apply.
Why I read it: Reproductive rights + feminist dystopia = my name written all over it. I also loooooove the cover.
What I thought: I’ve seen a lot of references to The Handmaid’s Tale regarding this book, but though it has similar themes regarding reproductive rights, it’s not quite an accurate comparison. The concept of this book is, in many ways, more terrifying because it’s the current political climate taken to its natural conclusion (ex: some states really do keep trying to pass personhood amendments). But while I wanted to love the book, I’m really sad to say that I did not. I’ve read countless books with rotating narrators and shifting chronologies, but the timelines and perspectives in this book were confusing. It took me about half the book to really figure out what was going on. Save for a handful of truly stellar sections, the story took too long to coalesce into something meaningful. I can appreciate the experimental structure, but I don’t think the payoff was worth the effort, especially in the first half.
Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
Set mostly in the late nineteenth century, Eowyn Ivey’s latest novel is set in motion when Colonel Allen Forrester receives a commission to go deep into the Alaskan wilderness to find a way north through the Wolverine River. It is a dangerous task that has never been done before, but if he and his tiny crew of men can figure out how to do it, the United States will have access to Alaska’s gold and natural resources.
The group decides to try walking down the river when it’s frozen over, so timing is key. Before they even reach the river, they’ll have to deal with the harsh elements of nature as well as indigenous populations that may or may not be receptive to them. The entire journey could take a year, and Allen is not happy about the prospect of leaving Sophie, his young and newly pregnant wife, for so long. And Sophie, who had originally planned to come along with Allen and see him off at his Alaskan starting point, is disappointed over seeing her one chance for adventure dashed by the pregnancy; instead, she’ll have to embrace domestic life in the Army barracks while she awaits Allen’s return, so she takes up the unladylike hobby of nature photography to distract herself from her other worries.
Set in 1829 and based on a true story, Burial Rites follows the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman who was executed in Iceland. Having been convicted of murdering her former master, Natan, Agnes is sent to an isolated farm to await her execution. The family who owns the farm is horrified by this turn of events. Jón Jónsson, the farmer, is resigned to the family’s role, but his wife, Margret, is furious at being forced to risk their daughters’ safety by housing such a woman. As Agnes awaits her execution, she has selected a young priest named Tóti to be her spiritual adviser; no one knows why she has selected such an inexperienced person for the task, especially since she has no previous ties to him.
Margret puts Agnes to work around the farm, keeping a strict and watchful eye on her every move. Agnes willingly and ably follows orders, stopping only when Tóti comes by for their sessions together. Haltingly, Agnes’s life story begins to take shape, and the truth behind her involvement in Natan’s death begins to emerge.
Fidelma McBride, a beautiful forty-year-old woman, lives in a small Irish village. Having experienced two miscarriages, she now feels trapped in a stale marriage to her faithful, much older husband. Enter Vlad, a mysterious older gentleman with a commanding presence. His recent move into their sleepy village has brought up a flurry of gossip. Vlad is Eastern European, handsome, educated, and well-traveled. He’s a healer of some sort, specializing in Eastern medicine, and it isn’t long before he starts winning people over…especially the women.
Partly because she desperately wants a baby, and partly out of curiosity, Fidelma approaches the good doctor about helping her get pregnant. Before long, the two are having an affair. But just as quickly as it begins, it is over. Vlad is recognized by someone who escaped his cruelty long ago, and finally the truth comes to light: he isn’t Vlad at all, but a man on the run who is wanted for war crimes in Sarajevo. He is arrested and taken to the Hague, and Fidelma pays a heavy price as well. Broken and shunned, she has no choice but to leave everything in Ireland and flee to the anonymity of London, where she finds herself surrounded by immigrants and refugees, themselves often fleeing horrific pasts.