Literary fiction, speculative fiction, and selected nonfiction

What We’re Reading: Women Writers

Stephen Billias and Bela Breslau, Writers

Stephen: I’ve found myself reading a number of women writers lately. Here’s a list of recent reads, and the reasons why they ended up on my night table:

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. New York: Penguin Random House/Riverhead Books, 2019.

I read a New York Times Book Review of the Nobel laureate’s latest book in translation into English. It’s wonderful, very funny and poignant, with an unforgettable middle-aged woman at its center. Coincidentally I found a copy of an earlier Tokarczuk novel, Flights, at an outdoor book sale at Ken Schoen’s Schoen Books right here in South Deerfield. It’s in the bedside queue.

  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Published in 1920. Collier Books edition 1992.

We had planned a museum tour this fall in western Massachusetts with writer/director John Harrison and his wife Leslie Chapman, that would have included the Norman Rockwell, the Clark, Arrowhead (Melville’s place) and Wharton’s The Mount. The pandemic put the kibosh on our travel plans, but I decided to read anyway, and am glad I did. We watched the Scorsese film also, quite good and holds up well after more than 25 years. Old New York. People trapped in the trappings of their society. Many beautiful epithets and succinctly encapsulated thoughts in Wharton’s writing.

  • Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. Angry Robot Publisher 2008.

Cyberpunk on steroids. I ran into this writer while researching for agents for the fantasy novel Krishna Buck that I wrote during the spring and summer of this year. Moxyland is state of the art cyberpunk, cinematically written, with much high-tech magic in it.  I can recommend it if you are a fan of that genre.

  • Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman. Plume Books 2002.

I found a copy of Harriet’s book in our local treasure of a bookstore, the Montague Bookmill, an old converted sawmill along, what else, the Saw Mill River. I’ve read several of Harriet Chessman’s books. Harriet was a classmate at Northfield Mount Hermon back in the day when they were two separate schools. We reconnected a few years ago when Harriet was on a book tour for another book, and Harriet was kind enough to give me a wonderful blurb for the back cover of A Book of Fields. Harriet’s writing is subtle, perceptive, and rich in detail.  I’ve just started Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, which tells the story of the relationship between the painter Mary and her sister Lydia. Already I am drawn into the colorfully evoked world of 19th century Paris.

Of course, I have my own in-house woman writer in the form of my wife and co-author Bela Breslau. Bela, what women writers are you reading and why?

Bela: I wish I were the reader that Stephen is. I am slow. Many fewer books read. The bedside queue fearsome. I’d like to comment on just a couple of books both referenced above.

Lydia Cassatt’s Reading the Morning Paper was gentle and inviting, full of detail and feeling. Beautiful writing. Loved it.

I re-read The Age of Innocence. I didn’t love it the way I had many years ago. It made me uncomfortable. I felt cornered. The characters are so trapped. It seems to me that the only one who had escaped the unforgiving, shallow confines of upper-class New York, was Edith Wharton herself. She traveled to Europe, lived the “writerly life,” became involved in politics, lived in and built grand houses, designed gardens. She escaped. I am reminded of the way I felt when I last reread Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I wanted Anna to do what Edith did. I imagine her going around her grand house and taking jewels, money and all the things of value she can find. I want her to take her child and leave both husband and lover and go somewhere where she can have a good life. One that is not bound by Russian society. I want her to escape. But she doesn’t. Like Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, Anna is trapped and the only way out for her is, well, you know.  

We would love to hear from you. What books are by your bedside?
Stephen and Bela

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