The Annotated Nightstand: What Julia Alvarez is Reading Now and Next

In a roundtable here on LitHub, Julia Alvarez and authors attended to the topic of writing characters who were older women. “A big part of that is I write to understand and make meaning of what I’m up against in my own life,” Alvarez explains.

I wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, my first novel, because back then there weren’t many stories about the immigrant experience from a female point of view. And I desperately wanted to understand that experience for myself and others. So I wrote into that gap. I find the same silence surrounding truly complex and vital older women protagonists.

And, just as compellingly, she talks about how her own age impacts her writing: “As an older writer, I am more willing to take risks now that I’m no longer in the running for world’s darling writer. I never was, and never will be, and so be it. What a relief.”

Alvarez’s latest novel was born from a difficult change for the author. “When I lost sight in one eye, I felt heartbroken that all my unrealized characters and their unfinished stories might not find the light of day,” she explains in Publishers Weekly. The Cemetery of Untold Stories attends to the seemingly rhetorical question one of its characters poses: “If a story is never told, where does it go?”

Our protagonist Alma has a friend—a wildly successful writer—who grows obsessed with a novel she cannot seem to finish despite years of research and plotting. She eventually unravels and dies relatively young. Alma dismisses the physical reasons: “What killed her friend was that novel she could neither write nor put aside.” As the years pass, Alma gains more and more success herself.

After her parents’ deaths, she begins starting and discarding projects with abandon, unmoored. Her dead friend appears in a dream with a warning: “Let them go.” So Alma decides to retire from academia and pack up her boxes of unfinished works, the hours of researched pages within. Alma has begun dreaming of her pen name embodied: Scheherazade. Scheherazade, too, gives Alma a directive—to bury the abandoned stories. She will go back to the Dominican Republic where she has inherited an undesirable parcel of land from her parents to do just that.

Alma builds a cemetery, an oddity in the neighborhood, and hires a woman named Filomena as its caretaker. She burns the boxes—but two won’t burn. One contains pages about her dead father, the other on Bienvenida Inocencia Ricardo (the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo’s first wife). “It’s a sign, though Alma can’t say of what.” In its starred review, Kirkus states,

Filomena is illiterate, but when she sits in meditation at the books’ graves, their subjects begin to speak to her. The novel’s focus shifts away from Alma to the stories of her father and Bienvenida, and of Filomena herself. As those separate plots touch and interweave, a rich and moving saga of Dominican history emerges, embodied in the lives of irresistible characters.

Alvarez tells us about her to-read pile, “An all-over-the-place miscellany, reflecting how I like to read all over the map! Obviously, a lot of my book recommendations come from friends whose tastes I trust. What can I say? a reading life without poets is an impoverished life. Indeed, this pile includes four favorites. A few notes added on each pick in case that is helpful!”



T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

“A reread! A yearly one—like a reading pilgrimage—every year I reread this beloved book-length poem. I consider it a sacred text!” Alvarez explains.

Eliot wrote the four poems of Four Quartets over several years, including into WWII when things were, to put it lightly, getting dicey. Thematically, the collection considers the four seasons(lightly), the four elements, as well as concerns of faith. It begins with Burnt Norton (spring, air), named after a building Eliot visited in the Cotswolds. East Coker (summer, earth) came next and, interestingly, at a moment of aesthetic crisis for Eliot—he wasn’t sure if he could keep writing poetry.

It was only when he got to The Dry Salvages (fall, water) that Eliot realized he was writing a book, and there would be four. Little Gidding (winter, fire) came next. A fun aside, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic the actor Ralph Fiennes committed Four Quartets to memory and put on a solo show once theaters opened back up.

Indigo - Bass, Ellen

Ellen Bass, Indigo

Julie R. Enszer writes at Lambda Literary of Indigo,

Bass’s poems accumulate power because she is as willing to explore emotions with more negative valences with the same wonder and appreciation as positive. Poems in Indigo explore failure, loss, and despair with vivid clarity. For example, Bass describes her “first / entrance into the land of failure” as a “country / I would visit so often / it would begin to feel like home.” In a litany of regrets in the poem, “Pearls,” Bass beings “I’m sorry I didn’t buy my father the cashmere sweater with suede trim the summer / I went to Europe. And I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer with my mother when he died.” Each regret invites readers to understand how the speaker has disappointed people, causes, the beloved one; each regret a reminder of the vital web of shared life.

Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems - Laux, Dorianne

Dorianne Laux, Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems

A finalist for the Pulitzer prize, the Pulitzer committee describes Only As the Day Is Long as “Poetic narratives of plainspoken authenticity with characters whose breadth spans the wide range of American life.”

Nick Ripatrazone writes in The Millions,

Helpless but not hapless, she deftly writes of heartbreak—the absolute, gutting, severe loss of the one who brought her into this world: “go,” she writes to her mother, “where we can never find you, where we can never overthrow / your lust for order, your love of chaos, your tyrannies / of despair, your can of beer.” Laux is majestic here: “We never knew which way to run: / into her arms or away from her sharp eyes. / We loved her most when she was gone, / and when, after long absence, she arrived.” The elegies accumulate, settle into our throats, drill down—her selected poems are gorgeous to revisit, but these new pieces are symphonic—and they become a perfect coda of grief.

Tokyo Ueno Station (National Book Award Winner) - Miri, Yu

Yū Miri, Tokyo Ueno Station (trans. Morgan Giles)

“A gift from my colleague at Middlebury College who is a translator of contemporary Japanese literature, Steve Snyder,” Alvarez explains. Terry Hong writes in her starred review on Booklist,

Kazu is dead, but his spirit can’t rest. As he wanders through Tokyo’s Imperial Gift Park—where he last lived as a homeless wanderer—memories, visions, and hauntings reveal his past. That his 1933 birth coincided with Emperor Akihito’s, followed by the birth of their respective sons on the same day in 1960, was supposed to be a “blessing,” but tragedy repeatedly marked the decades: “I had no luck,” Kazu unblinkingly insists….Yu (Gold Rush, 2002), an ethnic Korean in Japan, is no stranger to modern society’s traps driven by nationalism, capitalism, classism, sexism. Her anglophoned latest (gratitude to translator Giles for providing fluent accessibility) is a surreal fable of splintered families, disintegrating relationships, and the casual devaluation of humanity.

Piranesi - Clarke, Susanna

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Alvarez tells us the book was “A gift from my friend and fellow writer, Devon Jersild, who always nailed it in her book recommendations to me.” Piranesi is a wildly successful fantasy book that won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It also came out in 2020. To give us a window to a dark time, Women’s Prize worked with The Reading Agency have six reading groups read the book and talk about it (the screenshot of the Zoom chat is enough to give me a shiver).

One of the group members said of the book, “Charming and beautifully told, a portrait of a parallel world where the key themes are memory lost and regained, wide-eyed wonder, and radical self-reliance. A story that considers the best and worst of human nature and in which curiosity vanquishes.”

Pedro Páramo (Reissue) - Rulfo, Juan

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Parámo (trans. Douglas J. Weatherford)

In the New York Times, Valeria Luiselli writes of the significant novel,

Pedro Páramo, first published in Mexico in 1955, often produces a feverish response. Jorge Luis Borges said it was one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Susan Sontag called it one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century. Enrique Vila-Matas has said that it is the “perfect novel.” Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 would probably not exist without it. The book shows its readers how to read all over again, the same way “The Waste Land” or Ulysses does, by bending the rules of literature so skillfully, so freely, that the rules must change thereafter.

From Alvarez: “My former agent Susan Bergholz alerted to this new translation by Douglas J. Weatherford—a must read novel according to friends, Sandra Cisneros and Helena María Viramontes.”

We Need No Wings - Dávila Cardinal, Ann

Ann Dávila Cardinal, We Need No Wings

“A book I agreed to blurb by a delightful fellow Caribbean-Vermont writer!” explains Alvarez. Which is why I wasn’t able to find any reviews or pieces about the novel. The jacket copy states,

Teresa Sanchez has always known who she a professor, a wife, a mother, and a friend. But when her husband dies unexpectedly, she finds herself completely broken. Taking a leave from the university, Teresa hopes that she can mourn her husband and get back on her feet, but instead, she spends a year consumed by grief. Until the day she levitates. Suddenly, Teresa’s life is thrown into disarray, and the repeated incidents of levitation not only make her question her sanity, but also put her in danger. She decides she will do anything to stop them. So when she’s reminded that her family is related to the renowned levitating mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, she leaves the refuge of her home and travels to Spain, hoping to find answers.

Time of the Flies - Piñeiro, Claudia

Claudia Piñeiro, Time of the Flies (trans. Frances Riddle)

Alvarez tells us, “A new novel by an amazing Argentine writer. I’ve read everything Piñeiro has written that has been translated into English. Always a cause for celebration when a new novel is published.” I depend on jacket copy again for this forthcoming title. It reads,

Fifteen years after killing her husband’s lover, Inés is released from prison and left to put together a life. Her old friend Manca is out now too, and they’ve started a business—MMM, or Muerte (death), Mujeres (women), Mosca (fly)—dedicated to fumigation and private investigation, by women, for women. But Señora Bonar, one of their clients, wants them to do more than kill bugs—she wants their expertise, and their criminal pasts, to help her kill her husband’s lover, too.

The Reader - Schlink, Bernhard

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

Alvarez explains this is also a reread: “For research—my current novel has a major character who is illiterate, and I’m learning from writers like Schlink how to portray such a character with delicacy, respect, and accuracy.” The Reader is a historical novel set in 1960s Germany. In his 1997 review for the Los Angeles Times, Kai Maristed writes,

In a quietly riveting voice, as if remembering aloud, the Reader tells of a boyhood interlude with a woman, of his sexual awakening and its aftermath—events the man has kept carefully hidden throughout his subsequent dry life. Simultaneously, with The Reader, German author Bernhard Schlink presents a formally beautiful, disturbing and finally morally devastating novel. From the first page, it ensnares both heart and mind.

Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair - Wiman, Christian

Christian Wiman, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair

Casey Cep writes a profile of Wiman in the New Yorker, who lives years after a devastating lymphoma diagnosis:

Although Wiman is among the most distinguished Christian writers of his generation, he is uncomfortable with the word ‘miracle.’ But he doesn’t have an alternative description for what happened last Easter or after any of the other treatments that have kept him alive for the past nineteen years… Zero at the Bone takes its title from Emily Dickinson, but its subtitle is a surprising salvo for a poet: “Fifty Entries Against Despair.” The book has fifty short chapters, plus two naughts—one at the start and another at the end, each labelled “Zero”—for a total of fifty-two, like the weeks in a year or the playing cards in a deck.

Alvarez writes, “I am a fan of Christian’s work, his poems and especially his essays—no other Christian writer so accurately and fiercely captures the struggles of faith like he does.”

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