Valerie Martin’s latest book, Sea Lovers: Selected Stories, features previously published works that span her career. The twelve stories in this collection usually start out firmly based in moody realism, then end up taking a couple of steps into dark whimsy. They’re organized into three different themes: animals, art, and transformation.
Content-wise, the first section, “Among the Animals,” was probably the most difficult for me to get through (and yet I couldn’t look away). Let’s just say that nature — human nature, animal nature, life in general — is not terribly kind, and Martin explores this theme from different angles. The first story in the collection, “Spats,” is an excellent example not just of the section on animals, but of the atmosphere of book as a whole. In it, the narrator is struggling to move on after the break-up of her marriage. Her husband has left her for another woman and is in the process of settling into his new life, so she spends her days dreaming of ways to get revenge.
Most people remember Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis for her glamorous role as First Lady and for her memorable fashions. Though she was constantly followed by the paparazzi and was closely scrutinized whenever she went out in public, she was an intensely private woman who divulged little about herself, even among her closest friends and colleagues. She burned some of her most private letters before her death and did as much as she could to ensure that her remaining papers would not be released for public consumption after her death. Anyone who suggested that she publish her memoirs was politely shot down. Yet, as William Kuhn alleges in Reading Jackie, her “autobiography” has been right in front of everyone this whole time if you knew where to look.
Following the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onasis, Jackie (as she was known by her coworkers) surprised a lot of people by getting a job as an editor at Viking, and later Doubleday. As the widow of a former president, and later of a filthy rich man, one wouldn’t expect a woman of her position to go out and get a job. But for Jackie, the experience was liberating, and she would spend the last two decades of her life editing close to 100 books, though she refused to allow her name be printed in the majority of them. Overseeing everything from high-end photography books with niche markets to bestsellers, the books she chose to cultivate reveal more about her values, interests, and beliefs than most people realize.
This was a really interesting book for me to delve into. I knew almost nothing about Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis’s life outside of her role as First Lady–I wasn’t even aware that she worked as an editor after her marriages! Getting to read about this aspect of her life was fascinating, especially since during this time, a woman of her position choosing to get a job was still uncommon at the time. This book provided revealing insight as to why getting a job was so important to her, even analyzing the depression and rage she experienced after JFK was assassinated, and at her troubled marriage to Onasis. She had always been a serious reader and had once been an aspiring writer, so becoming an editor turned out to be a perfect fit.
I was extremely excited when I first heard about this book. As some of you may know, I’d like to go back to grad school to get my Masters of Library Science. Something most people don’t know is that while public libraries hold the key to my heart, I have totally flirted with the idea of being a prison librarian (everyone I’ve ever told that to–including a former co-worker who used to work as a prison guard–just gives me the side eye). Needless to say, this book immediately caught my eye.
Avi Steinberg, however, hadn’t given the occupation much thought. As the title suggests, Steinberg became a prison librarian somewhat by accident. A Harvard graduate stuck in a dead-end, low-paying job as an obituary writer for the Boston Globe, Steinberg answered a job ad for a prison librarian position on a whim. One hilarious drug test later, he was working as a prison librarian at Boston’s South Bay correctional facility. He is also in charge of teaching some creative writing classes to inmates. At the time, Steinberg had no formal library training and no real concept of how emotionally taxing the job would be.
It took me a while to get into this book. The first sentence is , “Pimps make the best librarians,” and when I read that, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, “Seriously, dude?” The first few pages expound on that initial statement, which left me wary of what lay ahead. I’m happy to report that all those worries were for naught, because once Steinberg gets past that unfortunate opening, his memoir opens a whole new fascinating–and sometimes heartbreaking–universe for readers.
The book is beautifully written. Much of the subject matter is oftentimes sad and dark, and Steinberg handles it with nuance. Though the premise of the book is based on Steinberg’s experiences in the actual library, the book is really about the people who come through the library’s doors. There is much discussion about the inmates’ bleak futures, the failures of the prison system, and the psychological toll it all took on the inmates and the employees:
Confession: I initially picked up Sky Burial because I needed an author whose last name started with an “X” (for the A to Z Challenge). I did a little research for some suggestions, and people kept raving about Xinran, so I went with her.
Sky Burial is the true story of a Chinese woman named Shu Wen. After being married for little more than three months, Shu Wen’s husband, a doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, was sent to Tibet in 1958. Two months later, Shu Wen received word that her husband had died in Tibet, but no information was given about the circumstances surrounding his death. Grief-stricken and in denial, Shu Wen, also a doctor, enlists in the army so that she can search for her husband and bring him home. She is convinced that he’s injured and lost, wandering Tibet and trying to find his way back to her. Through a series of events, Shu Wen meets a Chinese-speaking Tibetan woman named Zhouma, who is also in search of her lost love.
It took me a while to get into this book. At first, I was extremely skeptical about all of the events that set Shu Wen on her journey. The thoughts running through my mind probably sounded a lot like, “Come on…WHAT?!…This woman is in serious denial!” Call me a pessimist, but I had a hard time believing that anyone would enlist in the army and go off into the mountains of Tibet in order to find their spouse, much less one who was supposed to be dead!
But somewhere along the way, as I read about Shu Wen’s and Zhouma’s adventures, my cold, cynical heart melted and I found myself completely sucked into the story. The events in the story are so random and inconceivable that it was impossible not to root for her with all my might. Sky Burial is fairly short, so it was very easy to just keep reading until I finished the book! I couldn’t put it down.