Pinko by Jen Benka: The poems in this collection are sometimes tough to figure out (not that that's the goal, of course, but it's an unavoidable impulse for a narrative addict like me). But they're not coy in the way of so many poems. They're more like bits of text that almost spread out into epic novels, then thought better of it. Only intriguing, intimate, unflinching traces remain. In the opening essay-ish piece, the narrator recounts coming across a snippet of window-frost graffiti. She expects it to indict the cops in some uncouth way, but instead it's a declaration of queer teen love. That pretty much sums up the world view of this book: Where you're expecting terror, you'll find tenderness. And the reverse can also be true, which is why the world, however beautiful, is never quite safe.
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: Sarah Vowell is a geeky amateur historian who loves to plumb the depths of centuries past and pull out quirky facts. She holds them up and says, “Can you believe how hilarious this is? How outrageous?” And because she’s on NPR, we say, “Wow, yeah.” That’s probably a little too harsh—-I’m a history geek with no credentials myself, and I love it when someone does the grunt work of reading original sources and writes it up in a fun, comprehendible way. I appreciated Vowell’s unapologetically contemporary worldview—-of course we’re going to giggle and think it’s kind of awesome that traditional Hawaiians had a special hula praising their rulers’ genitals. I also appreciated her guarded fondness for the stuffy but sincere missionaries who sailed to Hawaii in the 1820s. Her sympathies are ultimately with the oppressed, but she knows oppressors are people too (especially when they endure mastectomies without anesthesia in one painfully memorable scene).
But for all its potential, this book lacks a real thesis and reads as a cobbled together history with a few anecdotes about her nephew thrown in. Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty, which examines Europe’s transition from saint-hunting religiosity to science and pseudo-science through the strange history of skull stealing, is a better example of what the historical creative nonfiction genre can do. If you’re a fellow almost-fan of Unfamiliar Fishes, I encourage you to check it out.
Children of Open Adoption and Their Families by Kathleen Silber and Patricia Martinez Dorner: Back in the day, most adoptions were shrouded in secrecy. Like other social realities, it has benefited from a coming-out process. This text is a helpful primer on why: Adopted kids who've known their birthparents from the start are less likely to feel rejected and lost. Birthparents have tangible evidence of their children's well-being. And as a potential adoptive parent, I have to take the authors' (mostly convincing) word that having an extra parent or two in my kid's life will actually make me feel more empowered. That's why I read the book, but the parts I enjoyed most were the historical background on adoption (it used to take five to ten freakin' years to adopt in the U.S.!) and a beautiful, heartbreaking exchange between an American mother and her daughter's Korean birthmother tacked on to a brief section about foreign adoption at the end.
Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother by Jana Wolff: In a culture that idealizes pregnancy, it's hard to be an adoptive mom. In a culture that increasingly idealizes adoption (see: Angelina--whom we love doubly because she's altruistic AND fertile), Jana Wolff's candor is refreshing. Although I didn't relate to her feeling that adoption was inherently a second choice for any parent (even as a kid, I wanted to adopt a kid), I imagine that someday I'll relate to her envy and resentment of her baby's birthmom; her slow-to-bloom love for this stranger's baby; her feelings of isolation from "real" moms; and her grappling with racial issues she thought she'd already grappled with. As this book illustrates, the miracle of love and family is that they can take root in even the toughest, most random of circumstances.
The Position by Meg Wolitzer: As well-written, multiple-POV family sagas go, I place this one well ahead of Julia Glass' Three Junes and a little short of Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood. The novel is bookended by the issue and decades-later reissue of a sex manual by the parents, but mostly it's a collection of snapshots--though it's more carefully crafted than it seems at times. As we see how an early knowledge about sex affects each of the four Mellow children, we see in a more universal sense the effect of any sort of knowing. It destroys innocence, sets expectations that will also be destroyed, and then you move on. The book closes with the grown children choosing to protect their parents from a particular piece of information, which I found touching and sad. This family knows better than most that innocence is never sustainable, but knowledge is only partial power.