Bedtime Stories: July 2022
- July 20, 2022
What are book lovers reading before lights-out? We asked one of them, and here’s what she said.
Right now, I’m just finishing up Elizabeth McCracken’s newest novel, The Hero of This Book, which comes out this fall, and I’m happy to report that it’s just as wonderful and warm and funny and idiosyncratic and inspired as her other books. It’s McCracken’s turn at an autofiction of a sort about her mother — or anyway, a fiction about the mother of a writer very like McCracken — but one written in a way that draws not just a brilliant portrait of the kind of person who’s usually described as “impossible to describe,” but also examines all kinds of tropes about family, love, biography, and, above all, storytelling.
Of course, it’s not surprising that storytelling would be a main subject yet again for McCracken; all of her books (and lucky us, she has many) seem to lean in and whisper, “Let me tell you a story.” This one may be her best, and most writerly, yet.
For me, there’s also a wonderfully comforting extra in reading this one: My own mother, like the narrator’s, died a couple of years ago, and she was also a complicated, big personality. And she — an English teacher and avid reader — was the one who introduced teenage me to McCracken’s writing in the first place, buying me my first copy of The Giant’s House on a visit to the bookstore. But no matter my personal connection, The Hero of This Book is for everyone, and I’ll likely be pressing it into many hands come fall.
I’m also reading Margo Jefferson’s incredible memoir, Constructing a Nervous System. Jefferson is just brilliant, and it’s hard to describe how this book is both deeply personal and also fiercely intellectual and committed aesthetically to an experimental, interrogative structure that looks at Jefferson’s life and influences in wild ways. She imagines a conversation between George Eliot and W.E.B. DuBois. She writes about Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, and the Black women’s track team the Tennessee Tigerbelles. She explores Josephine Baker’s unique, inventive style of dance and the fact that Baker wrote not one but three autobiographies.
I love this book for so many reasons, not least because Jefferson has claimed a space here for freeform associations, for an interrogating memoir — the sort of writer’s modern dance often dominated by white, mostly male authors writing about white influences and artists and lives. As she writes, “For those who’ve come after, History keeps trying new ways out and around and through. Black history, women’s history, black women’s history.”
In Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson gives us not only her own history, but also that of those who came before, whose legacies history ignored or distorted. I hope everybody will read it.