Next to dazzling, bohemian Scarlet, self-effacing Mel seems circumspect. In the episodic vignettes of Joan Frank’s painstaking character study, The Outlook for Earthlings, the two friends’ lives are traced across decades with solemn hindsight and silent criticisms.
As a high schooler, Mel believed herself to be unbeautiful and strapped with a “meagerness of mind.” She took conventional paths through an unsatisfying marriage and divorce, with her daughter, Sonia, as her main saving grace. Scarlet wound up working and lonely in California, her reality less glamorous than her personality once hinted she might expect.
After a resurgence of breast cancer, Mel reconnects with Scarlet and reveals her longstanding affair with a married professor. His self-aggrandizing and apparent meanness are off-putting to Scarlet. Mel’s loyalty seems slavish, but Scarlet admits that she could be wrong. In time, she accepts that other people’s relationships are more complex than outsiders can surmise.
Frank’s novel explores the excuses women make to explain the men in their lives; impressions that confirm and sometimes betray truths; and a mystifying friendship between women whose mindsets seem opposed, but who, beneath their pettier judgments, feel attached to one another. Scarlet’s need to see Mel as her counterpart is intriguing and honest.
Spanning the sixties through the aughts, with an epilogue set in 2013, the book zigzags through meetings, a Paris trip, emails, and late stage cancer treatments. Mel and Scarlet emerge as adults who’ve long passed the point of contemplating what-ifs, but who can’t help weighing every nuance of their exchanges.
The realization that friendship, in its purest distillation, is about support, no matter people’s personal decisions, arrives late, but it’s a rending lesson that lingers. With technicolor period details, intense reflections, and devastating acuity about women’s compromises in love, The Outlook for Earthlings is an elegant elegy.
KAREN RIGBY (August 27, 2020)
The Savior of 6th Street is Orlando Ortega-Medina’s lucid and engrossing new novel about a man who grows up in Los Angeles’s dark, 1980s underworld.
Virgilio is twenty years old, an accomplished artist, and street smart. He lives in an impoverished neighborhood near the edge of downtown that’s populated by immigrants, the homeless, and the “tunnel people” who occupy a shadow world under the streets. Striking descriptions capture the neighborhood’s “darkened buildings and abandoned picture palaces” and the dive bar that smells of “beer and Lysol, its trademark scent, as iconic as Chanel No. 5.”
Virgilio is tough minded, but compassionate, and his character is sympathetic and involving. He protects his Cuban mother, a seer or santera, and notes that he was four when his father abandoned them, leaving Virgilio “bereft with a massive wound in my heart.” His best friend, Concha, is a drag queen. Virgilio walks a fine line between treating Concha with kindness while not giving her “the wrong idea.”
Compelling depictions of Virgilio’s creative work include his painting The Savior of 6th Street:
It contained within it all the elements of my life…floating high above, gazing down on it all, was me, naked…a crown of nails encircling my head, a sacred heart blazing from my chest, hot to the touch of any who dared get that close to it.
These paintings gain the attention of wealthy, beautiful Beatrice and her friend Anne, a journalist and art reviewer. The women promote his work and arrange exhibitions in New York and Paris. But he is conflicted about this attention, describing Beatrice as his “Lucifer,” entering “my world as if descending from Heaven intent on pulling me out of Hades.” Virgilio faces a series of challenging decisions that shape who he is, whom he loves, and what he values.
Depicting a sinewy young man coming into his own, The Savior of 6th Street is a gritty and unexpected novel.
KRISTEN RABE (August 27, 2020)
Navigating Life, Mental Health, and Parenthood outside the Gender Binary
andrea bennett’s essays concern growing up, pregnancy, parenting, and mental health—topics that are addressed from a nonbinary perspective.
Growing up in small town Canada as a queer, nonbinary individual was a complicated and layered experience, bennett notes. Their thirteen essays begin with childhood accounts, as of when they were labeled a tomboy and grappled with being gendered a girl, though they felt a sense of masculinity. Subsequent essays examine childhood gender expectations, living with anxiety and mental illness, class and employment, and the importance of finding one’s home.
Some of the book’s most valuable entries concern how bennett experienced pregnancy, breastfeeding, and parenthood as a gender nonconforming individual. Language is vital to these discussions: what is a parent called, if not “Mom” or “Dad,” bennett asks? What is the label for a nonbinary, butch-presenting parent who is breastfeeding? bennett’s straightforward evaluations are important, and her essays validate concerns that are often invisible to those outside of queer parenting.
“Everyone is Sober and No One Can Drive,” written in sixteen parts, is interspersed throughout other essays. It consists of bennett’s interviews with queer millennials from small Canadian communities, each piece highlighting singular, relatable experiences. Each speaks, in straightforward terms, about struggles with small-town life, coming out, bullying, and their family relationships.
In addition to their occasional critical analyses of gender roles and embodiment, the pieces are tender, witty, and reflective. Not only has bennett studied queer and feminist theory, they have lived a queer life, and their essays are both credible and compelling because of this. Like A Boy but Not a Boy is a distinctive, appealing, and candid essay collection about nonbinary life.
KARLA STRAND (August 27, 2020)
In Yishai Sarid’s dark, thoughtful novel The Memory Monster, a Holocaust historian struggles with the weight of his profession.
The story takes the form of a letter written by the anonymous narrator to explain an unspecified event. He prefers ancient history, but the only opportunity he has to work as a historian is to study the Holocaust and give tours of concentration camps. At first, he is confident that he can handle the burden of memory and achieves great success in his field. But the work takes its toll, pushing him ever closer to a physical and emotional reckoning.
His monologue is frank and brutal, including descriptions of the camps as they were during their busiest, most horrifying days, and as the reverent museums they are now. He recounts overhearing students wish death on groups they disagree with and challenging them with the unanswerable question: what would you have done? He swings between professional interest and impotent fury that breaks free at inopportune moments. Most of all, he is alone, separated from his family and all of humanity by what he has learned.
Despite years of devoted study, the narrator is often surprised, even confused, by how and what people choose to remember. Everyone, it seems, has their own personal version of the Holocaust, of how it happened and who should take the blame, and of the proper way to honor the dead. In the end, although he has staked his reputation on objectivity and emotional distance, the narrator finds he cannot be the detached professional his superiors require. He must let emotion consume him, because it is all he can do.
The Memory Monster is a novel that pulls no punches in its exploration of the responsibility—and the cost—of holding vigil over the past.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (August 27, 2020)
How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway
New York City’s dark and dank subway tunnels are James Kelly’s specialty. In this true story, James, an Irish immigrant in the early 1900s, makes a name for himself by detecting hazardous leaks and preventing scores of explosions, all through keen observations, an overactive sense of smell, and a strong work ethic. Glowing fluorescent colors pop in the dimly lit labyrinth as “Smelly” Kelly comes to the rescue, again and again.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (August 27, 2020)