Oh, Body: Four Books About the Flesh
“Having a body is in itself the greatest threat to the mind.
The body encloses the mind in a fortress; before long the mind is besieged on all sides, and in the end the mind has to give itself up.”
The concept of giving up one's mind because of the situation one's body is in is at the heart of the four best books I've read this year. They are Koba the Dread (Martin Amis), The Book of Night Women (Marlon James), Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman), and And Now We Have Everything (Meaghan O'Connell). While our minds might be free to wander in a brutal, totalitarian state or feel the aching love of being a new mother or lover, the circumstances of our physical forms trap us in one way or another.
This is something I've been thinking a lot about, this mind-body relationship, as I've spent the last few years writing a protagonist who feels the tension between her mind's grief over the death of her first love and the bodily freedom to date and love whoever she chooses in New York City. Perhaps that's why I connected so strongly to each of these books. The mind-body thing, man, it's a real doozy.
Koba The Dread, by Martin Amis
Two-sentence review: Martin Amis' take on the reign of Stalin in the Soviet Union, told with remarkable sensitivity, irony, and passion. A nonfiction too upsetting not to read like fiction.
On bodies: Whose bodies do we mourn? That's a central question of Amis' book, as he asks why many of us remember the holocaust but not the Twenty Million who died under Stalin.
Representative quote: “The refusal of laughter to absent itself, in the Soviet case, has already been noted (and will be returned to). It seems that the Twenty Million will never command the sepulchral decorum of the Holocaust. This is not, or not only, a symptom of the general 'asymmetry of indulgence' (the phrase is Ferdinand Mount's). It would not be so unless something in the nature of Bolshevism permitted it to be so.”
The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James
Two-sentence review: A detailed, visceral, experiential novel of slavery in 1800s Jamaica. Dives in where other accounts of slavery shy away.
On bodies: It's not a shock that James' men and women experience the most severe circumstances a body can: rape, torture, hunger, beatings. What is shocking is the precision and sharpness of his language, and the dialect he uses throughout to bring us closer to inhabiting the bodies of his characters. The conflicted way his protagonist experiences and uses her body as a dark-skinned, light-eyed slave is supremely nuanced.
Representative quote: “She not no fool, Lilith tell herself. She not a sleeping princess and Robert Quinn is not no king or prince. He just a man with broad shoulders and black hair who call her lovey and she like that more than her own name. She don’t want the man to deliver her, she just want to climb in the bed and feel he wrap himself around her.”
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, by Meaghan O'Connell
Two-sentence review: I don't subscribe to the belief that you're magically an adult when you have a child, and I appreciate that this book showed a messy conception, pregnancy, and birth. I feel like honest accounts of the process are scarce, and really appreciated O'Connell's candor.
On bodies: Part of O'Connell's reason for writing this book was because she felt we don't treat women like adults when it comes to frank discussions of pregnancy and childbirth. Many women don't know their bodies, or what's coming for them when they do conceive. This book remained a story of woman-body without going into guidebook mode, and that made it that much more memorable and useful.
Representative quote: “Day and night bled into each other, coalescing into one big nightmare. My clothes were indistinguishable from pajamas. A lamp was always on. We were in the middle of what felt like an ongoing emergency. Like someone was playing a practical joke on us. Endure the car crash of childbirth, then, without sleeping, use your broken body to keep your tiny, fragile, precious, heartbreaking, mortal child alive.”
Call Me By Your Name, by André Aciman
Two-sentence review: To be savored. Peachy.
On bodies: Protagonist Elio's exploration of male and female bodies is sincere and hungry and wild and beautiful. The earnest desire for them both, but the love of one mind-body in particular, is a revelation and too-unique a portrayal in literature.
Representative quote: “If I could have him like this in my dreams every night of my life, I'd stake my entire life on dreams and be done with the rest.”