Monthly Archives: September 2018

Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State

The Golden State coverThere’s so much I loved about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State. What stands out to me most is its portrayal of motherhood, but I also loved the picture of the northern Californian landscape and culture we get in the book, the portrayal of university life in the book’s beginning, and the poignancy and political commentary in the situation with the protagonist and her husband. I also really liked the novel’s voice — it was sharp, funny, smart, and communicated a world of feeling in an understated way.

The protagonist, Daphne, works at an unnamed San Francisco university (Berkeley) and cares for her toddler-aged daughter. Her husband is stuck in Turkey, unable to return to the U.S. because he got screwed over by a nasty border officer, so Daphne has to care for her daughter alone. This part sent waves of anxiety through me, both at the knowledge that our government routinely separates families in this way, and at the thought of having to care for a young child as a single parent. Kiesling describes perfectly what it’s like to get through a very long day with a child who demands your attention but is also kind of boring, as young children are. The predicament with her husband is unsettling; he is simply stuck in Turkey with his family until the very, very slow bureaucratic wheels turn and his request to return to the U.S. is considered. Daphne is considering joining her husband in Turkey, but isn’t sure what she wants to do.

Instead, what she does is leave work suddenly one day, pick up her daughter, and drive hours up north to a mobile home her grandparents have left her in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. She thinks there’s a chance she’ll have some time and space up there to figure out how to deal with her situation. She does have some of that, but she also learns about the movement underway in that part of California to secede from the state and form the “State of Jefferson” (mainly in order to avoid taxes). She gets involved in the lives of her neighbors and an elderly woman she happens to meet in a restaurant.

I loved how the novel is politically timely, both in terms of domestic and international issues that connect in important ways, but also about experiences and situations that can happen at any time to any one — being separated from family, struggling with work, struggling with children that one deeply loves but that are hard to take care of day after day. The novel is in first person, and Daphne makes a wonderful companion, someone whose voice I was happy to have in my head for the few days it took me to read this.

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I Am, I Am, I Am

I Am I Am I Am cover I finished reading I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell on a plane, and it made me tear up, which is not ideal, when one is on a plane among strangers. Perhaps planes make me a little extra weepy because I hardly ever cry over books, but this book really did move me, especially the last chapter, which I won’t get into here. The book’s subtitle is “Seventeen Brushes with Death,” and that’s exactly what it is: essays about seventeen times O’Farrell faced death, sometimes very immediately and dangerously, sometimes in a more distanced but still real and frightening way. O’Farrell has lived a pretty exciting life, with lots of travel and serious illness, and she has a certain recklessness that leads her into trouble sometimes. But still it seems to me like seventeen brushes with death is a particularly unfortunate record. O’Farrell writes about these experiences simply, in a straightforward manner without much direct philosophizing about life and death. But she still manages to be evocative and to inspire reflection even as she sticks to the story at hand. The experiences build on one another, later stories inspiring memories of earlier ones, hospital experiences contrasting with one another, childhood dangers helping us understand adult ones. The essays are not in chronological order, but they still add up to a full sense of the person that O’Farrell is. The book is labeled a memoir, and it feels like one, even as the individual essays can stand alone as well. The last chapter is the most wrenching, and it brings the book together beautifully. I just loved it.

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