A round up of readings, reviewed by Sentinel Staff Writer Carina Julig. Follow her on Twitter for more book talk.
By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
The social isolation induced by the coronavirus pandemic has the effect of making mundane activities that we engaged in before seem exciting, at times almost magical, in retrospect. In her short story collection Likes, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum achieves the same effect in documenting banal interactions between people — a father lurking his daughter’s Instagram account, a mother taking her preschool-aged daughter to the fair, a pregnant lesbian having a conversation with her neighbor — into artistic vignettes. The limited plot that short stories allow means that the relationships in the stories do the heavy lifting, whether they’re between spouses, friends, or parents and children. The strongest story of the collection, “Many A Little Makes,” was published on the New Yorker website in June.
In an adjacent Q&A, Bynum describes the short stories in Likes as being about “the contradictions of love.” It’s an apt description, as the ways relationships become close and are torn apart is the main thread connecting the different narratives. Just as the pandemic will become a line in the sand bifurcating the 2020s from the early 2000s, Likes is distinctly of the Trump era — the 2016 election serves as a backdrop for the titular short story and another alludes to the Kavanaugh hearings. But Bynum explores how race, class, social media and other factors affect our lives in both quotiduan and major ways with enough skill that her insights feel new, and will be relevant long after we no longer consider an outing with friends a major endeavour.
The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes
By Elissa R. Sloan
The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes, Elissa R. Sloan’s debut novel, begins as three members of a once mega-famous girl group (think The Spice Girls) learn that their estranged fourth member Cassidy Holmes who abruptly left the group many years ago has died by suicide. That’s not a spoiler — what makes this book a page-turner is gradually learning more about the relationships between the band members (all of whom believed themselves to be closest to Cassidy) and what let to the band breaking up. The book jumps between Cassidy’s death in the present day and the years the band was active in the late 90s and early 2000s and is written from the viewpoints of all the band members, including Cassidy. It’s hard to spend time inside her head knowing her eventual fate, but while the book touches on a range of dark themes — suicide, addiction, sexual assault, homophobia — it doesn’t feel graphic or vouyeristic. Sloan does an excellent job of fleshing out each band member and making the reasons for their at times destructive decisions make sense. The roving point of view is a stark reminder of how little we sometimes know about the lives of the people who are closest to us. Sloan’s split timeline illustrates how much (but also how little) our society has changed between now and the early aughts, especially regarding celebrity culture and how it chews out and spits up talented young women and girls. But the meditation on fame is secondary to the novel’s main exploration of relationships between women, which can be powerful and intense life forces for the famous and obscure alike.
Beowulf: A New Translation
By Maria Dahvana Headley
Maria Dahvana Headley’s avant-garde translation of the Old English epic is an engaging read, but never quite strikes the right tone.
Headley uses a range of modern slang in the translation, which begins with the word “bro” and includes “stanned,” “on blast,” “zero shits” and many more turns of phrase you’d expect to see in a Zoomer’s text messages. (Also: do people still say “bro” that much anymore? I’m not cool enough to know.) There are some beautiful turns of phrase that include modern language, such as “somehow though, his heart / was not a hawk but a drone” but the mix of formal and colloquial language feels jarring at times and it’s hard to understand what Headley’s intentions were with the translation. It can be possible to tell an old story using new vocabulary in a way that still carries a strong emotional truth (see: the wildly popular rap musical Hamilton) but it’s a difficult thing to pull off. More than anything, the modern lingo serves to demonstrate just how far-removed the world of Beowulf, a medieval warrior culture where tribal loyalty was paramount above all else, is from our own. In her introduction, Headley notes that modern heroism requires “taking responsibility for one another,” a more challenging task than dragon-slaying. In that, we see eye-to-eye.