I’ll Be Seeing You by Elizabeth Berg (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): “This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.” So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don’t be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse–generous gifts of poetic insight, close observance, vulnerability, honesty, humor and grace. Berg’s father, a tough U.S. Army “lifer,” is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while his wife of more than 67 years tries to cope. Though he’s always been autocratic and demanding, Berg’s father unconditionally adores his wife. “She was the place where he put his tenderness,” Berg writes. Eventually, his gradual descent into dementia, along with his wife’s advancing age, force the couple to move from their longtime home into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility. Berg and her sister try to negotiate and navigate this upheaval with their parents’ best interests at heart, but complications arise. Their father is increasingly confused and isolated, and their usually even-tempered mother becomes angry–an understandable reaction to her two-pronged grief over losing her husband to dementia and leaving a beloved home. “My mother was enraged,” Berg writes. “Her heart was breaking because her house was being taken from her, which is to say that her life was.” From the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011, short diary entries focus mainly on the events of Berg’s aging parents’ lives, as the author and her sister step in to be their parents’ loving–and often frustrated–family caregivers. “It’s hard to know how to rescue someone. It’s hard to know how to help them in the way they need to be helped,” she writes in one entry. Such rueful reflections are blended with an appreciation of ordinary moments, making each entry a story in miniature–cameos of the joys and pains of family life, and the challenges and rewards of caregiving for loved ones. Readers familiar with Berg’s novels know that her stories wonderfully encompass the comforts of beauty and wry humor, but they never sugarcoat life’s hard truths. The same is true of I’ll Be Seeing You, which mines the wisdom hidden in difficult times. “Life is a minefield at any age,” Berg writes. “If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”
Memorial by Bryan Washington (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): It sometimes feels like romantic relationships are becoming harder and harder to navigate. Meeting someone, getting to know them, constantly finding ways to communicate about everything, searching for common ground, trying and failing to move forward or take a leap of faith–it’s all exhausting. The routine isn’t entirely disheartening, though, and to the most curious of minds, it can be fertile ground for analysis and creation. So it is with Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, a celebratory lamentation of modern love. The novel follows two men who are in love with each other. Through a major miscommunication, Benson, a Black day care worker in Houston, ends up living with his boyfriend Mike’s Japanese mother, who doesn’t seem all too happy to be the guest of someone she has never met before. Mike, on the other hand, is a chef who must travel to Japan to help his father, who is dying of cancer, through his final days. As the novel begins just before Mike’s departure, the two men are unsure of their path forward together. This classic will-they-won’t-they scenario gives Memorial a timeless feel, but by placing two gay men at the center of this familiar setup, Washington poses fresh questions about contemporary romantic relationships with quiet grace. From the intermittent use of text messages and shared photographs to the mastery of a decade of slang, his writing is invigorating, reminding the reader of the realities every human must face and how we’ve all learned to communicate them. Memorial is more than just a love story–though it is a very good love story. It’s this generation’s response to centuries of love stories, to a whole history of them. It’s what is coming; it’s what is here.
To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu: Short stories in science fiction are frequently answers to questions. What if, an author wonders, an incomprehensibly powerful alien being were inspired by an ice sculpture? Or what if there were nations in cyberspace, separate and distinct from their real-world counterparts? What if a world on the brink of annihilation could be saved by a poet? Or a teacher? Each of these questions is explored in a story in Cixin Liu’s new collection, To Hold Up the Sky. These stories span three decades of his writing career, from 1985 to 2014, and although many have been published before, all are new to his English-speaking audience. As with any writer over such a long period, Liu’s style evolves from the earliest stories to the more recent ones, and yet they are all immediately recognizable as his work. In some ways, Liu’s point of view is rare among science fiction novelists of his international stature. Unlike most of his peers in the Western science fiction scene, whose worlds frequently comment on fundamental human failings or the dystopian struggles of an inconsistently ethical society, Liu’s work is suffused with an understated optimism. To Hold Up the Sky is no different. In fact, he hints at this in the foreword, where he mentions that in his writing, he is always attempting to depict “the relationship between the Great and the Small.” To him, the “Small” is all of humankind, and at this project’s core, there’s a presumption that humans are always more united than we are divided, that our communal nature is our defining characteristic as a species and that free will, along with the frailties and flaws that it allows, is essential to that collaborative instinct. (And yes, that does sound like a contradiction, but this is addressed and dispensed within one of the stories in To Hold Up the Sky.) This realistic but positive outlook is shared by a few other science fiction writers–Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Becky Chambers and Iain M. Banks come to mind–but rarely is it as essential to a speculated universe as in Liu’s prose. As a result, few writers achieve quite the same flavor of optimistic apocalypse or infuse existential dread with such a tangible thread of hope. Throughout To Hold Up the Sky, Liu brings his collections of ice sculptors and poets and computer scientists and military engineers teeteringly close to oblivion. He does so knowing that the crisis is finite, and that humanity in its feeble entirety will either survive, learn and grow, or simply…stop. And he insists that there is beauty either way. I am not certain if I agree with this sentiment. It is both too cynical and too idealistic for me. But either way, Liu is far too good a writer for me to put this book aside.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, follows main character Harold on an improbable long walk across England as he comes to terms with his failures. Similarly, Miss Benson’s Beetle, Joyce’s fifth novel, tracks main character Margery Benson as she aims to make her own unlikely journey to an island called New Caledonia in the southwestern Pacific, to track down an elusive golden beetle. In 1950, the war is over, but rationing and shortages continue in London. Margery is a lonely 40-something soul, teaching home economics to snarky high school girls. When the girls go too far in making fun of her, Margery snaps and flees the school, snatching a pair of lacrosse boots in fury and frustration, an act that reminds her of her long-deferred goal of finding the golden beetle of New Caledonia. But it’s a preposterous dream. Margery has no academic credentials, no passport, no knowledge of New Caledonia and no money. Nevertheless, she persists, planning her journey and interviewing assistants. What follows is an epic, obstacle-filled journey from London to Australia and at last to New Caledonia, which in 1950 is a French colony. Margery and her assistant, Enid Pretty, arrive on the island woefully underprepared for the final part of their quest. Miss Benson’s Beetle balances the light–including comic moments that highlight the discrepancies between stolid Margery and flighty Enid–with the dark, such as Margery’s trauma-filled youth. As with Harold Fry, the main character’s inner journey is the real one. Margery finds human connection she didn’t know she was missing and, through that connection, a deeper purpose in life. The novel also has a marvelous, economical way of contrasting the drab gray of postwar London with the vivid colors, sounds and smells of New Caledonia. Joyce’s fiction has been slotted into “uplit,” a publishing term for novels that contain some dark moments but ultimately offer an uplifting ending. For readers who seek escape, Miss Benson’s Beetle is just right.