This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 7.
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Welcome to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week, Lauren Groff picked Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick and Zoraida Córdova raved about Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore.
Lauren Groff is the award-winning author of the novel The Monsters of Templeton, the short story collection Delicate Edible Birds, and the novel Arcadia. Her third novel, Fates and Furies, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kirkus Award. Her new short story collection Florida spans characters, towns, decades, and even centuries, with Florida’s landscape, climate, history, and state of mind at its gravitational center.
My name is Lauren Groff, and “Sleepless Nights” by Elizabeth Hardwick is my recommended.
This is a nutty book that I’ve read probably four times this year alone because I’ve been having a lot of issues with insomnia, and it’s such a wonderful novel because it feels as though it’s a novel burning down all the structures that really traditional novels use. It’s a novel in memory, and it’s a novel in which Billie Holiday sort of waltzes in and becomes this incredible character, almost fictional character. It’s something that blows my mind every time I read it because I find new and unusual modes of thought in it. Elizabeth Hardwick is, of course, one of the most excruciatingly, extremely, exquisitely beautiful writers of sentences too, so I can just sort of bask in her sentences late at night when I don’t want to worry about the state of the world.
The most amazing thing about this book is that there is no plot. It’s a kind of crazy biography in fiction, in a certain way. The narrator, whose name is Elizabeth, sits down in the very first part and says, “It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work with transformed and even distorted memory, and lead this life, the one I am leading today.” That is basically the plot of the book. It is the most plot-less book I know, and yet it sort of gives us the contour of this really perceptive, beautiful human being through the observations and the memories of the people in her life, particularly the women in her life. It’s really extraordinary.
It came out of “The New York Review” of books, and I love basically everything that they put out. It looks like it came out in 2001, and I’ve had it for a very long time; it’s falling apart. It’s just one of those books that always feels like it’s been a part of me. It just sort of walked along with me for many years. There are books in your life through which you sort of read other books, and this is one of the lenses that falls down in front of my eyes when I’m reading other books also.
There are times when I’ll go to a bookstore and just go to the NYRB section, take down four or five, and then enjoy the heck out of them. I think that’s probably what happened with this one. I don’t think anyone actually recommended it to me, but you know, that’s one of the most beautiful and exquisite things about independent bookstores, is that you can just wander around and find a mind that is like a soulmate just randomly. You can just pick a book up and it becomes a companion for the rest of your life. It’s amazing, it’s magical.
I think I’ve read this book probably 10 times. I think one of the first times I read it was when I was nursing my son. Apparently I come to this book whenever I’m having periods of insomnia. I was nursing my first son, and I would remember sitting with him and feeling this exquisite vulnerability and exhaustion. When you’re sitting there bare to the world in the middle of the night, it’s basically the moment in my life when I was the most vulnerable human being on the planet. I would read this book in a very quiet, voice, which it kind of lends itself to just because she such an exquisite . He would eventually fall asleep. This is a book that’s so beautiful that I would just continue reading with him sleeping in my arms in the middle of the night.
There’s a very tender, very emotional, and vulnerable feeling for this book at certain points, and possibly my attempts to reread it in my insomnia now is almost a sense memory to get back into that place where things were both vulnerable but also very gentle at the same time. There’s a lot of hope involved in it, and a lot of just … I guess peace involved in it, too, even though I was awake. With my insomnia now, I can’t control anything. I can’t take melatonin. I can’t actually force myself to go to sleep, so you have to find these mental states that are as close to sleep as possible, even while you’re waking, and particularly reading books that are great, great comforts to me is one way that I go about doing that.
It’s not a book in any way; it’s very, very sharp. It’s got a lot of underlying bitterness. I hate the biographical fallacy when it comes to writers. It’s one of those things that drives me absolutely bats, but of course at the same time, as a writer of fiction, you play around with it because it’s fun. With this book, you kind of have to insert the biographical fallacy because one, the narrator, her name is Elizabeth as Elizabeth Hardwick’s name is, and also a lot of people in it are real people from Elizabeth Hardwick’s life. Her life was not easy. She was a really brilliant Kentuckian; I think she’s from , but she came up north and she became part of the partisan review crowd. At 33, she married Robert Lowell, who was beset with his own demons. He’d already ruined the life of Jean Stafford, who’s another one of my favorite writers from the 20th century. They lived together somewhat happily for a while. Everything she wrote was beautiful.
Then he left her for Carolyn Blackwood and used some of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters to him in a poetry book. Then she took him back after Carolyn Blackwood became too crazy. It’s this really devastating life, and what’s so fascinating about this book is that there are these moments where you realize after a few sentences that she’s talking about Robert Lowell and she’s talking about their life together. I sort of feel like this book is one of those books that circle the main pain, the deep, dark sort of of pain, and by circling it, , but she never looks directly at the central pain. That actually gives it its power. It’s this incredibly interesting black hole in the center of the book.
I keep out four copies on hand just in case someone comes over for a party or dinner or something, and I can just press it into their hands. I have probably five or six books like that that I just keep copies of on hand. They’re never copies that I can find used. I have given The New York Review Book so much of my money in the past 10 to 15 years, it’s kind of nuts.
Usually this recommendation comes out of someone saying, “No books that I’ve been reading recently are speaking to me.” This happens in all readers’ lives. We all have these periods in which the books that we turn to are not comforts anymore. We’re just not into them, and it has to do with who we are and it has to do with maybe the book that we’re finding. I usually say, “Well listen, there’s this novel. It’s called a novel, but it doesn’t have any loyalty to the rules of novels. It’s not an essay collection; it’s very clearly not, but I think that you would like it because it blows everything up in a really subtle and strange way.” Usually people love the book. I haven’t given it to anyone who’s been like, “Eh, it’s kind of meh.” It’s really a tremendously beautiful book, more like poetry I think than what you would think of when it comes to novel.
It’s such a hard book to describe other than to say that if there’s a point in your life that you feel the need to blow something up, it’s a really good book. It’s a really good bomb, a really good stick of dynamite I think.
Something really, really similar is Renata Alder’s “Speedboat,” which is a book that I absolutely love. I think in some ways, Adler and Hardwick share sensibility. I would say that David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” is another book just like this. They’re all somewhat plot-less, but they’re all sharp as heck. Sharp as stilettos. They’re women basically edges of their existence in a certain way. All of these books are just so brilliant, and they kind of unroll feeling like essays as opposed to feeling like the standard plot and novel.
I would love for it to inform my own writing. I think that’s part of why I keep rereading it, is that I want it to inform my writing more than it . This is also why I keep rereading “Middlemarch,” for instance. I want George Eliot’s voice in mind. There are probably 10 other books, too. I wish it informed it more, but you write the stories that are given to you to write and sometimes you really don’t have much say in the selection of them. Maybe in the future I will write something that’s closer to the spirit and, I don’t even know, of “Sleepless Nights.” I hope so, but we’ll see.
Thanks again to Lauren Groff for joining us and recommending Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwicke. Her short story collection Florida, published by Riverhead, is now available wherever books are sold. And you can follow Groff on Twitter at legroff.
This episode of Recommended is also sponsored by Annotated.
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Zoraida Córdova is the award-winning author of The Vicious Deep trilogy and the Brooklyn Brujas series. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology, Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, and Toil & Trouble: 16 Tales of Women and Witchcraft. The second book in the Brooklyn Brujas series, Bruja Born, follows Lula Mortiz as she seeks to use her healing powers to bring back a deceased loved one — but something else comes back too.
My name is Zoraida Córdova and Blanca y Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore is my Recommended.
This book comes out in October of this year.
Blanca and Roja is a story about two sisters, it’s inspired by Snow White and rose red and the swan princess. It’s about two sisters who are cursed in a long family line where they turn … one of them is destined to turn into a swan and so they try their entire lives to stay together to become the same person so the swans don’t take them and inevitably things start to fall apart and it’s about the division of sisters, a division of family and these two mysterious boys who get sucked into the same magical forest that her and her family have lived in for years and years and years.
I read Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel, The Weight of Feathers and her writing is super lush and it’s soft without being overly dramatic. It has this quality where it feels like poetry even though it’s a complete narrative. The Weight of Feathers was considered magical realism and all of her books are considered magical realism. I think the author is, she’s Latina, she considers herself Latina and she’s half Mexican I believe.
I got a galley of this book. The minute that I read it, I felt sort of transported into this magical, mysterious forced world and it’s for somebody like me who is a first generation immigrant, to have a story by a peer who is writing in the same tradition of magical realism, is really important and so this book specifically out of her other two, I don’t know why it’s different. I think that I haven’t been able to really find why this book strikes me so much more but I think it’s the connection about sisters and the idea that your entire society, your family, your neighborhood, your town, everyone has expectations of you, of what you look like and so each sister, one is named Blanca and the other ones name is Roja, it’s like their fates are decided for them by everyone else and then they’re the ones that make an active decision to say we’re gonna change our fate, yeah.
I was on an airplane when I started reading this book and I recently read some statistic that says that you’re more likely to cry while you’re watching a movie in an airplane and I don’t know if it was being super high in the air or if it was just because this book is so good that within the first 40 pages, I was already having that feeling in your chest where you’re just gonna cry because something bad is happening to these girls.
It’s two sisters and there’s a magical forest and there are these two boys. There’s a trans character and there’s a very lovely discussion about that in this as well. I think my favorite character though is Roja because she was born … Roja means red in Spanish so she was born with red hair but it wasn’t the right kind of red hair. It’s like blood wet, red hair. Meanwhile her sister, Blanca is born with beautiful golden hair and they’re both Latinx characters and so there’s all this superstition that goes along with them so Roja was always seen as this, the ones that the swans would take just because she has the feistier personality or because she’s already painted as the wicked one and so there’s a lot of reference to fairy tales and that’s what it feels like. It feels like a classical fairy tale.
In the fairy tale, the blonde one is always the pretty princess and then the darker red headed one is the witch and so it’s about her showing her softness and I don’t think that we get especially in young adult fiction, we don’t always get to see those dynamics inverted. They both have fierce loyalties but I think that Roja is the kind of person who she would wait for her sister to start a betrayal before she started it first, even though she’s supposed to be the bad one.
I vaguely knew Snow White and Rose Red and obviously the Swan Princess, she just turns into a princess I think. The book starts with saying, the first line of the book is, everyone has their own way of telling our story. The author lists four different versions of it that generations ago a girl was lured into the forest by these swans. Another one is these two sisters were fighting so the swans cursed them for some reason and so it just happens that every single generation every woman in that can bear children has two daughters no matter what. And one of them is taken and when they’re taken they’re just gone. They just … you just lose a part of yourself. So there’s this idea that you’re not … you spent the first 15 years of your life with this person and then all of a sudden, they’re gone. But the question is, would you rather it have been you? So it’s the implication where yeah, you love your sister but at the end of the day you don’t want to be the one that’s chosen to get taken away and never come back and never be human again.
I have to pass my advanced reader copy along but I know that when it does come out, I’ll definitely be gifting it to somebody or to people who love books, stories like this. I just wanna be able to rave about it because it’s I think that it feels like a classic, a classical story but it questions a lot of our ideas about who gets to tell their story, how can we save ourselves and for young girls, I think that message … or I mean for young anybody I think that message is really important.
I think that we’re always gonna retell these fairy stories and it’s always gonna be about how fresh it is and I think that because this book does have some Spanish words woven in and because the family is Latinx, I’ve never seen a story done like this quite before. Even though we know the story of Snow White, we don’t always know the Snow White Rose Red story. I think there was another Swan Princess retelling recently but I don’t remember the title. So I think it’s becoming one of those things in Y.A. where we’ve had a lot of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast retellings but I think that people, they try to find the more obscure ones to see how those pan out. For me, it’s more of why not? If I see something that hasn’t really been done a lot or that has been done in a new way, even if it’s from earlier I think I really gravitate towards it. ‘Cause I love fairy tales and I love all stories with magic.
I think that reading this book … You know when you read a book that’s so beautiful that you’re just like, I’m never gonna be this good?
So maybe in that sense and the sense that I almost feel like it’s so good that it just gives me a moment of anguish but I think it’s important to read books like that because it pushes you to be better and I think that the quality of her writing and so there’s this thing that we do in Y.A. where we take out a lot of pros to sort of make it super fast and fast paced and I think that this is one of the first books that I read in a long time that it reminds me to slow down and enjoy language in a different way. And not to despair because it’s my genre, I love it. It’s everything that I’ve loved since I was a kid but it’s … I want us to sort of be able to have both, like we can have the fast paced books and then we can have books that are really lush and sort of allow us to sink into the page to feel everything the characters are feeling and to sense them into … Anna-Marie McLemore does such a good job at like sensory detail that you just sit and you linger and you think about a sentence that she just wrote and I think that’s a really beautiful thing.
There’s like a quality of the writing that it makes it feel like it’s luscious and like it’s sexy but not sexual, if that makes sense? I don’t know I’m just fascinated.
I think that my takeaway from this book is the idea that you can choose your family in a way that you’re not tied down to the politics of blood and names and lineage and you can, your bond is more than just these bone and blood things. I think that it’s important to see, it’s important to give stories about young girls who have different kinds of strengths that are not physical all the time and sometimes the strongest thing that you can have is like your power to choose your own fate.
Thanks again to Zoraida Córdova for joining us and recommending Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore. You can pick up Bruja Born, published by Sourcebooks, wherever books are sold. You can follow Cordova on Twitter at @Zlikeinzorro.
Next week on Recommended, an author talks about how a historical novel blew her mind:
I was so overcome, I think even when LGBTQ fiction makes strides, they’re relegated into YA where it’s this coming of age narrative, and the fact is I didn’t really come out until I was an adult, I didn’t really find myself until I was an adult and so to see an adult novel that was in no way lurid, but for what sexuality and sex was definitely an essential aspect of the narrative and seduction in particular, I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
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