The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos

Title: The Green Shore
Author: Natalie Bakopoulos, whom I was lucky enough to have had as a workshop leader once upon a time
Release Date: 2012
Genre: Highbrow historial
Describe it in a sentence: 
A politically connected family in Athens experiences the military coup differently
TV/movie character who would like it: Anyone living through the Trump presidency

It’s going to be challenging for me to resist turning this post into a self-centered piece of nostalgia. Look, there I go, right now.

But how can’t I? When I hear Natalie’s name I think of the summer I spent in Greece after my junior year in college at a writing workshop. Now I sit, confined to the house due to a raging pandemic, and I’m reading her book. I would hate to be Cassandra; I’d hate to know the future. In fact I’d like to have the opposite. Be an animal, trapped in the present. I would’ve enjoyed that summer instead of worrying about the future, one I never would’ve been able to predict anyway.

That summer Natalie taught me about writing fiction. I was too starstruck, at the time, to read her book. She was effortlessly cool, boundlessly generosity. I accepted her cigarettes and smoked on the patio and stared at the sea. Whatever choices could get me back to that moment, over and over, that’s the life I wanted. Though my life has indeed changed (see: pandemic), those desires haven’t.

That summer Natalie seemed to me someone who knew Greece, who’d internalized it. After reading The Green Shore, which she wrote and researched while living in Athens, I realize how much she had internalized it. This book was the result clearly of being steeped in history, of a dark era in Athens: The military junta, which spanned from 1967 to 1974 and ended n part because of a shocking act of police violence at an Athens university.

Me (left) in Greece. I miss it!

Ultimately I’m happy to have waited to read The Green Shore. The novel came into my life at just the right time. The relevant time. It’s a book about people living through massive political upheaval—emphasis on the living. With guilt and with anguish, they kept living. Because the toppling only affects people at certain points. The rest of us keep living.

It’s something I’ve thought about constantly the last four years. The pandemic is arguably the first time that we’ve all been affected by the Trump presidency at once. But others have been affected. It was easy, as we were living, to forget about them.

The characters in The Green Shore are Greek, so they don’t live quite as restfully as we comfortable Americans. They’re always fighting against the power; being sent to island prisons or locking themselves in universities. Protest is more a part of daily life and ethos in Greece; I admire it. In fact, I think the characters in this book would be on the streets now, as I write this, demanding that Nevada hurries up. Or at least Sophie would be—before she left for Paris.

The book follows a politically active family dealing with the decade-long military junta. The mother, Eleni, is a doctor. Her eldest, Sophie, has to leave Greece after following in her political poet uncle’s footsteps and protesting vehemently. Her son scurries goes off to America at the first opportunity (and I hate to say it, definitely becomes someone who loves the Orange One). Her youngest, Anna, had a journey that I was particularly transfixed by—she morphs from a quiet girl to a firebrand, and I bought it.

Reading the historical events had me Googling through the entire book. One of the details struck me. I knew that Greek islands were used as prisons for political prisoners, but actually reading of the reality of those islands was striking. The Greek islands retain a reputation of being a vacation bliss, with the intellectual aura as old as the Odyssey. It’s the seat of the good life, the place where the Mediterranean diet gives people unusually long life expectancies (hey there, Ikaria).

But they’ve also been used as prisons—adjacent to where people are vacationing. And they’ve been used as essentially holding pens for migrants, the ones who survive and aren’t drowned in the Mediterranean. The Green Shore forced me to interrogate my somewhat rosy picture of Greece after visiting for vacations. The islands, through another slant, are not beautiful—they’re barren, isolated. A place cut off from the world, where terrors can take place without witnesses. A testament to exile.

Makronisos, an island used as a prison during the Greek Civil War (and other times). Today, it’s uninhabited.

So yes, I went down those grim paths, got stung by a few thorns. But there were roses too. The relationships between characters were carefully drawn. I enjoyed that Eleni defied stereotypes of the Greek mother—she was hands off, allowing her kids to make their own decisions in the world (sometimes too hands off). Also interesting to see how she negotiated (and excused) having a boyfriend that leaned conservative for years. Reminded me of the few women I know who disagree with their boyfriends’ political leanings (and yes, I wonder how they do it).

While The Green Shore is a special book to me because of my connection to Greece and Natalie, this would’ve been a memorable read regardless. Historical fiction that’s grounded in eternally relevant dynamics and lyrical language. Sign! Me! Up!

Buy The Green Shore.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Title: Love Medicine
Author: Louise Erdrich, living goddess, who published her debut novel at age 29
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Instant classic
Describe it in a sentence: 
The intertwining lives of two Ojibwe families on a reservation in North Dakota, narrated by different family members
TV/movie character who would like it: Bear with me, but Noah and Helen of The Affair—a show about marital infidelity told through each character’s perspective.

It’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of everything a book can be. Most of the time the books I read are confirmations of what I already know.

To put it bluntly, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich’s first novel and the first one I read by Louise Erdrich, exploded the novel. Actually, I’m self-conscious of writing sentences down now, having seen all that Erdrich in her mid-twenties could do. I found myself nodding along the way you do when you see the truth repackaged in a new way.

Love Medicine is the start of a trilogy that follows the same families. It’s a polyphonic book, narrated by different characters, all of whom feel the repercussions of the others decisions. The novel breaks with form, retreading the same events through different lenses. Later Erdrich said she wrote her first novel this way because she didn’t know how to structure an entire book leaning on only one voice.

Louise Erdrich gives me Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House vibes

That surprises me, that this is an accident. Because the book seems masterful—far from a first-time novelist relying on gimmick. Sometimes it was hard to follow, but I decided to trust the characters; eventually, the story would come into focus. And it did (though families trees will help).

Take even the degree of differences between each narrator. The cadence of the sentences alters depending on who is telling the story. Language and syntax becomes a vessel for character—the unapologetic, matter-of-factness of Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons to different men; Lyman Lamartine as he watches his luck come and go in quick sentences. Characters seamlessly process the magical alongside the real, living in a reality that is abundant in possibility, if limited in opportunity.

It feels a bit silly, for that reason, to go into the plot details. You should let the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and co. tell it yourself. But this is the deal: In the opening scene, June Morrissey, a Chippewa woman, dies after an encounter in a remote mining town. She walks into the snow, and it feels, according to Erdirch’s narration, like going home. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like coming home—maybe it is. After reading Love Medicine, you may take indeed sentence—“The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home”—literally.

Later on, a character beautifully remarks on the thin boundary between life and death: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”

Erdrich describes June’s death as a kind of home-going. Appropriate, because the entire book is concerned with home, with the reservation these people were born on, and live their lives on—bumping into the same people, the same ceilings of opportunity. Even when the characters aren’t home, they’re thinking of it.

Anyway, June’s character is refined via the narrative engine of the book: A love triangle between Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, both Chippewas, and Marie Lazarre, a white 14-year-old who—after escaping a convent—meets Nector in a field. The drama begins when they’re teenagers, and never ends, only evolve.

A wonderful family tree, credit to this blogger

And how could it end? Lulu, Marie, and Nector have no choice but to live through their connections as they change. Marie’s adopted grandson, one of the “strays” she takes in, comments on her relationship with Nector (who, by that point, is losing his mind to dementia but is lowkey carrying out an affair with Lulu). They’re both seniors, but are just as firey with each other—defying his expectation that older people are somehow more docile, somehow feel less.

“You see I thought love got easier over, the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead. And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind,” Lipsha said.

This novel is about what happens when people live in close proximity, and simply never leave. There’s a fishbowl quality to it, like a long social experiment: What happens when you cordon people off into one geographic region, and watch their lives play out?

I looked up many a map while reading

Then again, what the outside world holds might not be any better. Characters are ruined by war. By emotionally meaningless, but physically destructive, encounters with men. By poverty, injustice, and racism. On the reservation, you get the sense that at least characters are understood by one another. Because the world outside the reservation holds the people who made the concept of a reservation necessary at all.

Erdrich’s book is teeming with insight into life on a North Dakota reservation in the 20th century, and with plain ‘ol wisdom, including gems like this: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The richest plan is not to have one.”

I’m so happy I read it—and so happy I let the powers of the aisle work their magic. The art of the wander.

moi in the library

While I loved it, Love Medicine came into my life completely by chance. Erdrich’s name was on that hazy list of authors whose work I hadn’t gotten to yet. During my first trip to the library stacks post-quarantine, I was overwhelmed with choice and possibility. It felt like staring at a timetable in an airport and instead of dreaming of boarding a plane to all those destinations, actually going to those destinations. Books are the closest thing I get to travel these days, and the emotional experience of this book was honestly akin to some of the immersive rushes I’ve had while walking alone down an foreign city’s street, seeing the familiar refracted through a new light.

Luckily, I happened to pick her first book, and the first in the trilogy. Now, I fully intend to dive into the Erdrich extended universe, which includes an array of stories—including one dystopia that looks delectable.

Have you read other books by Louise Erdrich? Let me know! I need help guiding my next read.

Buy Love Medicine

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

61467918_1847418322025053_4237299821543809294_n(1)Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Release Date: August 19
Genre: true psychological thriller, in the sense that you don’t know if she’s actually seeing ghosts or if she’s actually just cray! 
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman takes a “perfect” job nannying for a wealth family in a Scottish highlands “smart” mansion — soon, the house starts playing tricks on her (or the kids? or the ghosts? or her mind?)
TV/movie character who would like it: The governess in The Turn of the Screw, who would feel a real solidarity with our girl Rowan.

Summer, as you and I know, is the season for tearing through books. I want books that leave pages shredded in their wake. I want the desire to read to be near-violent. Everything else pales the the book. I’d safely put The Turn of the Key in that category. I finished the book in a day — and told a lot of people about the book during said day. The Turn of the Key is my first Ruth Ware book, though I doubt it’ll be my last. You could wring out the pages and it’d drip Britishness. WE LOVE A GOOD BRITISH READ.

Anyhoo, let’s do the quick “summary” part. The book begins with a young woman writing to a lawyer from prison. She claims she’s been wrongfully convicted for murdering one of the girls she was nannying. She was typecast as murderer. It adhered to the tropey worst nightmare “troubled nanny” story you occasionally see on the news or an Adele Slimani novel. But in this case, the story wasn’t true.

Rowan’s here to salvage her reputation, and maybe get out of prison along the way. She knows her story isn’t perfect. There are phenomena she can’t explain. What were the noises coming from the attic in the house? Why had this family gone through so many nannies? What was the force that ejected people from the house? She knows her story has holes. But she’s hoping she can explain enough of the space around those holes to redeem herself

As someone who grew up babysitting, Rowan’s story was harrowing. She shows up for her first day of nannying in a house like the one in the movie Smart House – each room has cameras and a Siri-equivalent. So yah, she’s being spied on by her type-a employer who reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow. Then, on her second day of work, the parents DIP OUT for an undisclosed period of time, leaving her with the four daughters (!) one of whom is straight out of a horror movie. She has that limp stare like the kid in a movie poster. Unsurprisingly things get……..out of hand. It doesn’t help that Rowan is kept up at night by terrifying noises. Maybe the same lingering Victorian ghosts that drove out the other nannies.

So, what HAPPENED during those weeks in Heatherbrae House? The book is driven by those big “wtf” questions that you’ll be desperate to answer. In some ways I found the ultimate conclusions somewhat predictable but I also enjoyed the journey there.

If you like any of the following things — Scotland, mysteries, mischievous children, time-hopping books, smart houses, women like the women in Big Little Lies, the book The Turn of the Screw — then point yourself toward Ruth Ware’s latest book.

How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.