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Friday Reads - May 17, 2019

Welcome to another guest edition of Friday Reads. We invited the charming Sierra Dickey to share her current read with us. If you haven’t had a chance to read her essay, “The Lives of Plovers”, we highly recommend it. Thank you, Sierra!

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There are some feelings that seem real only when you are experiencing them. Once they pass, or the situation that conjured them dissipates, you look back on those emotional states like a tourist reminiscing on a long-past trip.

For instance, when I worked as a live-in Nanny in Spain for a summer when I was 17, I vaguely remember feeling at once disgusted by and in love with the family. I felt captive a lot of the time but not so oppressed that I had to quit and flee. I was kept, or I kept myself in the fraught space between kin and staff that inevitable gets condensed with domestic labor.

In The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani hovers over social situations that are long-past for me, stirring up a micro-clime of forgotten feelings. The short and heady novel follows the foreshortened arc of one family and their nanny. The new parents begin desperate, they hire Louise and gain their lives back, the children fall in love with their caretaker and she even joins them on vacation. Then, Louise, who is destitute and gravely mentally ill, begins to transgress more and more boundaries. She does so slowly, quietly, and with a lot of tact. The parents don’t realize that she is troubled until it’s much too late—she is practically living in their house by this point. If you have heard about this novel you probably know that the children die on page 1. This fact makes the book scandalous before you even pick it up, but I insist that the real sensation is how Slimani excavates the complicated feelings involved in care work.

Slimani has written a sly and horrific page-turner that takes readers into the living tissue of a feminist labor politics. In one of the most quietly devastating passages, Wafa, a Moroccan nanny who befriends Louise at the park, wonders about her weary future and the class-bound cycles that her life and the life of her white French charge will likely follow:

“Wafa sometimes feels afraid that she will grow old in one of these parks. That she’ll feel her knees crack on these old frozen benches, that she won’t be strong enough to lift up a child anymore. Alphonse will grow up. Soon he won’t set foot in a park on a winter afternoon. He’ll follow the sun. He’ll go on vacation. Perhaps one day he’ll sleep in one of the rooms of the Grand Hotel, where she used to massage men. This boy she raised will be serviced by one of her sisters or her cousins, on the terrace with its yellow and blue tiles.”

The perils of growing up, of having babies, the facts of the infant and senile body, and the need to hire other people to “service” those bodies are the rigging on which Slimani has hung a sexy, dark, and salacious story.

Sierra Dickey is a writer, organizer, and educator currently teaching ESL in immigrant and refugee populations in Vermont and Western Massachusetts. She writes a weekly literary newsletter called Stay Fluent and collects her other writing work on sierradickey.com.

Friday Reads - March 23, 2018

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Rebecca is still reading (and loving) Moby-Dick, obsessing about whales, writing her own poems about whales, and so is re-reading Jenna Le's beautiful A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora because there can never be enough poems about whales.

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Shari just finished Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and thinks it would be a perfect read for Slow Club Book Clubbers. McGregor focuses his story on a small village. Each chapter is a year in the life of the village after a girl goes missing. It's not a traditional mystery/thriller story. Instead, McGregor simply follows the villagers through the ebb and flow of life. His sentences are lovely and he weaves in what's happening in the natural world as well.  A perfect, slow read that yields big rewards.

Interview: Robin MacArthur

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Robin MacArthur's new novel, Heart Spring Mountain, will be released on January 9. Robin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the process of writing this beautiful book, how she kept track of so many distinct voices, and a few other nosy questions. Thank you, Robin!

p.s. We'll be celebrating Heart Spring Mountain at Robin's reading at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday, January 10 at 7:00 pm and we hope you'll join us. Please contact the Norwich Bookstore to reserve your seat.


Literary North: Your book has at least seven distinct voices who speak in separate chapters. Is there one particular voice/character that you feel most connected to, or is your own voice distributed among many or all of them?

Robin MacArthur: One of the reasons I write is that living one life, in one body, is difficult for me. I am a hungry ghost of sorts—perpetually craving new opportunities, new rooms, new roads diverging in a wood. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes,” and when I write fiction I get to transcend the boundaries and limitations of this one lived experience, and become (or put to form) those multitudes. Which is to say: there is a part of each of those characters that is very much me. If I couldn’t empathize with my characters, I don’t believe they would ring true on the page, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing them. I am Stephen with his desire for solitude. I am Lena’s romanticism and lyricism. I am Hazel’s regrets and Vale’s hunger. I am Bonnie’s heart as a mother. But if I had to choose one that is most me, I think it would be Deb. She’s twenty years older than me, and her biography is nothing like mine, but her fears for the world, her meditations on aging, and her ruminations on motherhood are straight from my gut to hers.

LN: The story in Heart Spring Mountain ranges through many times, voices, perspectives, even locations. How did you keep track of all of this? Did you use a spreadsheet, a timeline on your wall, or some other method?

RM: Oh, gray strands appeared in my hair trying to keep track of all this! I drew multiple family trees that I had to reference regularly.  I was constantly calculating characters’ ages in different scenes. I didn’t outline this book ahead of time, so the trickiest part was that things kept changing as I wrote. Once I discovered a part of the story, all the years would shift, and suddenly I’d have to go back and rewrite everything that had come before. A timeline on the wall would have helped. Also: my copy editor, Margaret Wimberger, who happens to live close by, is brilliant and saved my butt in this regard. I bow down to copy editors.

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LN: We love that you mention Grace Paley a few times. Is she a favorite author of yours? What does Grace's writing mean to you and to this story and these characters?

RM: I do love Grace Paley’s writing. I also love her biography, and verve, and the ways she interwove a life of writing with mothering and activism. I’m always seeking role models who dedicate themselves to those three projects; who recognize that words are powerful medicine, but that taking to the streets to serve the betterment of humankind is essential, too. As is baking cookies with your children. To me, Paley is a touchstone for how to live a life that serves and reveres both beauty and resistance; the life of the spirit and the hard necessities of human need, and that honors and recognizes how those things are connected (which is a theme in my book as well).

LN: When you look back to writing Heart Spring Mountain, what was going on in your life at the time? What was inspiring you as you wrote?

RM: One thing I love about the novel is how it can evolve and stretch as your life evolves during the era of its writing. I wrote the first fragments of this book nine years ago when I was first becoming a mother. The concerns then were motherhood—how to love, and give of oneself, and do so well. I picked the book up six years later and my concerns were different: tropical storm Irene had torn through southern Vermont, and climate-induced environmental disasters were ruthless and everywhere. My hometown had become wracked by the opioid epidemic. All I could think about were the ailments of the world, and how they were linked: how the machinations of capitalization had led to a loss of connection to one another, and to the natural landscape, to the wisdom of our ancestors. At that point the question of the book became: we are so broken. Everywhere. How do we heal?

LN: What was the most memorable thing you've read in the past month?

RM: I just began reading The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whitely, and it is divine. I’m trying to pull back from social media and the news these days (without giving up on resistance), and reading books that were written one hundred years ago or more is proving to be a great salve. I also just re-read Thoreau’s Walking, and am looking forward to re-reading Anna Karenina. As for the characters in my book, sometimes the past is just the thing I need to illuminate the future.