Sometimes, you get so involved in a book, or a movie, or a TV show that it becomes part of your identity. You can’t help but define yourself by the entertainment and philosophy that have shaped you. The three heroines of this week’s book club really love literature, so much that they risk being overwhelmed and constrained by the works they love. The novels and nonfiction become security blankets and totems, so much so that you could say our protagonists are “lit.” If you’ve ever found reading to be so absorbing that you’ve become absorbed, you’ll feel this.
1. Daphne by Will Boast ($26): “When I was thirteen, I used to stay up all night with Thomas Hardy…It wasn’t just Hardy. The stack on my bedside table was like geologic strata, layers of girl detectives, wayward babysitters, and dragon-riding heroines compressed under the solemn tomes that, on the cusp of high school, I’d started checking out from the town library…Somehow I got stuck on Hardy…I read in a state of near compulsion, my tired brain skittering on to each new page. I shivered with anticipation, tinged with dread. When all the calamities crashed down at once, I wept. I knew Wessex was made up. Yet it felt more real to me than anything outside the cocoon of my bed.” The heroine of Boast’s novel can lose herself in a book, but it’s her mythical namesake that defines her life.
Daphne was born with a rare condition (unnamed, but an apparently real immune disorder) that makes her hypersensitive to the feelings of others. This heightened empathy comes at an extreme price; absorbing emotion that’s too intense can stop her in her tracks, literally paralyzing her. Daphne can be weakened by a weary crowd on public transit. She may pass out from being surprised by a loud noise, or from a rush of sorrow upon seeing a homeless person (difficult to avoid in her home city of San Francisco). It’s especially bad when being touched, which means Daphne avoids others, makes few friends, and considers romance is essentially out of the question. Even reading isn’t safe, though it’s a refuge she still clings to; one of her first memories of the paralysis was to the insistent emotions she felt reading Hardy.
When Daphne meets Ollie, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her routine keeps her largely insulated from her vulnerabilities, but Ollie is both empathetic and interested in her. Will she lower her defenses for the possibility of a lasting love? Unlike the Daphne in the story of Daphne and Apollo, this Daphne can’t turn into a tree to escape his attention, and must actually make a choice. With vivid descriptions of San Francisco’s art scene, Daphne delves into the danger of being truly open to another person.
2. Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi ($24): “My father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini — multilingual translator of great and small works of literature, man with a thick mustache fashioned after Nietzsche’s — was in charge of my education. He taught me Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, English, Farsi, French, German. I was taught to know the languages of the oppressed and the oppressors because, according to my father, and to my father’s father, and to his father before that, the wheels of history are always turning and there is no knowing who will be run over next. I picked up viruses. I was armed with literature….We are convinced that ink runs through our veins instead of blood.” More than a decade ago, Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini fled Iraq during the Iraq War with her fiercely intelligent and free-spirited father who preferred reading to fighting. The road to freedom was extremely difficult, and young Bibi was scarred by her brushes with death and starvation. She’s grown up in New York, burying herself in Don Quixote and hiding behind works of philosophy.
Following the deaths of her parents, Bibi decides to pay homage to her heritage and revisit Barcelona, the last place she and her father stopped before coming to America. When Bibi gets to Barcelona, she meets Ludo Bembo, who styles himself as a potential new mentor. The Italian philologist is initially off-putting, but Bibi can’t help but hear him out. He’s impressed by her extensive knowledge of literature, but advises her to try living instead of just reading about it. They wind up in a passionate but fractured love affair, making Bibi think long and hard about why she prefers books to people, and why she clings so desperately to the philosophy of others.
Call Me Zebra features a singular heroine who’s eccentric, capricious, funny, and clever. It’s on just about everyone’s “most-anticipated” list, and Van der Vliet Oloomi, already a National Book Award “5 Under 35” winner, explores exile, life, and death through the kaleidoscopically diverse lenses of Borges and Kathy Acker, among many others.
3. When My Heart Joins the Thousand by AJ Steiger ($18): If Bibi is a zebra, Alvie, the heroine of Steiger’s book, is a rabbit. “For rabbits, the process of courtship and mating combined takes about thirty to forty seconds. I am not a rabbit. If I were, my life would be simpler in many ways.” The title of this YA novel comes from a line from the book Watership Down. The rabbits in that novel inspired and mean a great deal to her; they represent the will to survive in a predatory world.
Seventeen-year-old Alvie Fitz has autism, and has always found it easier to identify with rabbits and other animals than with humans; that’s why she works at the zoo and almost never talks to people, save her bimonthly mandated session with her legal guardian and social worker Dr. Bernhardt. (An orphan, she dropped out of high school, and spent most of her time trying to escape from her horrifying group home; running away several times due to the conditions, she eventually pled for the legal emancipation that requires his visits.) If she can make it to 18 without incident, she can continue to live on her own for good. If not, she’ll continue as a ward of the state, possibly for her entire life. Dr. Bernhardt wants her to eat healthier and start trying to make friends, but she’s sick of trying to pretend to be normal. People just encroach on her space, and she’d much rather just talk to Chance, the zoo’s one-winged hawk. That is, until she meets Stanley Finkel.
“Obviously I’m not what most people would describe as happy. But that has nothing to do with anything. Happiness is not a priority. Survival is. Staying sane is. Pointing out that I’m not happy is like pointing out to a starving homeless man that he doesn’t have a sensible retirement plan. It might be true, but it’s entirely beside the point,” Alvie says. Stanley is 19, in college, and a completely unexpected connection in a confusing world; he has osteogenesis imperfecta, which means his bones break at the slightest provocation. He accepts Alvie for who she is, and she accepts his ever-present cane and disruption to her carefully constructed universe. Alvie may be a rabbit, but even a rabbit can let its guard down once in a while, given the right conditions.
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