Maryse Condé’s novel Waiting for the Waters to Rise addresses immigration, nationalism, friendship, colorism, and political power through the intersecting lives of three friends.
Babakar, a handsome obstetrician in Guadeloupe, is haunted by the voice of his deceased mother. He struggles with his intimate relationships. One night, he is summoned to deliver the baby of a Haitian immigrant, Reinette. When she dies in childbirth, Babakar decides to raise the baby as his own. He names her Anaïs.
On the night of Anaïs’s birth, Babakar also befriends Movar, Reinette’s friend. Movar tells Babakar that Reinette’s wish was to have her daughter return to Haiti; they set off with Anaïs in search of her mother’s family. In the course of their search, they befriend Fouad, a Palestinian immigrant who’s living in Haiti. The men forge a strong bond, living together, raising Anaïs, and searching for her family.
As the story jumps from locale to locale, it conjures up the sense of statelessness that binds the men together. The prose is fluid, luminous, and evocative of each setting. It also hops from the present day to the rich backstories of each character, highlighting the struggles inflicted on them because of political strife, climate disasters, and colorism. They are layered characters who, despite their circumstances, find hope in friendship. The novel is crowded with details about their struggles; they are linked through how they’ve survived deceit, betrayal, and hardship. The subtle cynicism throughout the novel is balanced by the love the men have for each other.
In the literary novel Waiting for the Waters to Rise, three friends survive political regimes and natural disasters with each other’s help.
MONICA CARTER (June 27, 2021)
Ruminations on life and art abound in Mario Levrero’s work of autofiction, The Luminous Novel.
An author’s dream of financial independence comes true when he receives a generous stipend with no strings attached. Suddenly he has the means to dedicate all of his time to the novel that has eluded him for so many years. But the dream turns into a nightmare. Even with no time restrictions, he finds himself without the time to write. The novel slips further away from him, and with it, his life.
The book is written in a tone of escalating desperation. The author keeps a diary so that he can tell himself that he is at least writing something. He chronicles one year, describing his life as empty and lonely when, in fact, it is busy and filled with people. The contradictions between how he experiences his life and how he lives it become evident, as does his obliviousness to the gap in his perception, even when it stares him in the face. Because of this fractured perspective, his story becomes universal.
In the end, something of a novel is written, after all: its first five chapters make up the final third of the book. They’re narrated from the same perspective as the diary, so that the novel and the diary become two sides of the same coin, revealing the overlap between the artist and his art. And Annie McDermott’s translator’s note further reveals the similarities between the work of an author and that of a translator.
The Luminous Novel is a postmodern novel about the contradictions of everyday life, in which an author’s struggle reveals that life is what happens when we are busy doing other things.
ERIKA HARLITZ KERN (June 27, 2021)
Tales of Identities and Memories
The dazzling speculative fiction anthology Seasons Between Us features a range of distinct and powerful voices.
These stories imagine parallel worlds in which different rules apply, animated by androids, aliens, selkies, and dryads. Throughout, characters grapple with the universal challenges of understanding and self-acceptance. In one story, an elderly man in Japan struggles to acknowledge his son-in-law, an android. In another, a sensitive Hungarian girl wonders if she is an alien-human hybrid.
Elsewhere, a mathematician on vacation in Spain consults his future self for relationship advice. A social worker’s new contact lenses enable her to see the spirits of the dead during the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival; a grieving man at an assisted living facility is comforted by an android “carebot,” who teaches him that the teenagers who he thought were vandals are planting moss for an ecology project. In Bev Geddes’s poignant “The Selkie’s Skin,” a magical sea creature loses her pelt and spends the rest of her days in compromised existence on land. Even as her eyes dim and her memories fold into themselves, she reflects, “It is enough. A life lived is enough. I have made something of my days, however small.”
The stories conclude with their writers’ “notes to my younger self.” At the close of “The Light of Stars,” where a girl sees spirits burst and flutter “like cherry petals” at a shrine in Okinawa, Amanda Sun writes: “They are wrong… You will grow and unfold and flourish in the moonlight. And bathed in such bright light, you will not see them anymore.”
By stretching the boundaries of what is and what might be, the stories in Seasons Between Us are compelling in addressing choice, identity, and meaning.
KRISTEN RABE (June 27, 2021)
Love and Pom Poms
In Cheer Up, two friends on different tracks reconnect and explore their romantic feelings.
Annie is smart but antisocial. To present colleges with a more balanced high school transcript, her mother suggests that she give cheerleading a try. Beatrice is a transgender member of the cheerleading squad who feels pressure to succeed and an unwanted amount of attention. Annie’s history of confrontation precedes her, but Beatrice stands up for her at tryouts.
Beatrice helps Annie with cheerleading and makeup, while Annie helps Beatrice advocate for herself and study history. As each becomes more confident and well rounded, a budding mutual attraction leads them to attend the homecoming dance as each other’s dates.
The book is appealing in its complexity, showing a variety of relationships with nuance. The squad defends Beatrice, but sometimes treats her like a publicity tool; Beatrice’s parents are still adapting to her gender identity. The artwork captures myriad emotions through the teenagers’ facial expressions, while its convincing settings and details enhance the storytelling, too. These include the digital marquee in front of the high school that sets the time of year for the story with its display of “Welcome back, students!” Elsewhere, a newspaper clipping about the state’s “1st Transgender Cheerleader” is mounted on Beatrice’s wall; its placement in her room, and the roughness of the article’s torn edges contrasted with the otherwise careful presentation, reveals much about the delicate combination of pride and uncertainty that she inhabits.
Showing that everyone has more to learn, and that embracing others is often the best way to do it, Cheer Up is a wonderful graphic novel.
PETER DABBENE (June 27, 2021)
Monica Huerta’s memoir is a bold contemplative account of her family’s immigrant history, and of her struggle to forge an identity beyond their influence. Personal reflections, photographs, articles, mystical tales, Yelp reviews, and text messages form this collage representing Huerta’s unique background; the daughter of Mexican American restaurateurs, she recalls her childhood and adolescence, and her later career as a scholar, writer, and academic.
Huerta’s story is peopled with intense characters. Her Cristero great grandfather was executed by firing squad in 1927 for defying the Mexican government’s persecution of Catholics. Her parents emigrated from Guadalajara to Chicago in 1976; for decades, they owned Salvador’s Restaurantes Mexicanos. With a menu of 48-ounce “killer” margaritas and other crowd-pleasing items, Salvador’s reliable fanfare of mariachi music and attentive service expanded to serve a chain of eateries.
Huerta details the duality of restaurant life, contrasting Salvador’s fun and fiestas with the hustle for customers and publicity; the harried pace; and the “grease and steam” of the kitchens, full of overworked staff. Her parents’ marriage deteriorated; her father remarried, leaving his family and the restaurants, and taking his omnivorous entrepreneurial energy back to Mexico.
And beyond her family memories, Huerta contemplates Chicago’s distinct Mexican community, too, showing people adjusting to the city’s fierce winters and ethnic and racial entrenchments. Adaptable, yet also tenacious and cohesive, Chicago’s Mexican Americans became a prominent economic, political, and cultural presence.
While she too descends from “centuries of restless migrants,” Huerta conveys a more intrinsic yearning as she moves from place to place—not only for economic opportunity, but also compelled by the urge to play “geography hopscotch,” and because of her belief in the “magic of Elsewhere.”
Thoughtful, wry, and intimate, Magical Habits is a memoir that’s rich with questions about identity, heritage, authenticity, and the true American dream.
MEG NOLA (August 6, 2021)