Right Back Where We Started From

Sloane Crosley ponders the books that take us back.



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AGAIN, AGAIN! Anyone who has been a child or put one to bed will be familiar with this refrain. In addition to buying more time in the conscious world, our young readers have an innate understanding of the joy that comes with knocking down towers and putting them back up. Books are the first puzzles we custom-make for ourselves, noticing favorite details in the process.

The books to which I tend to return fall into two categories: those I know like the back of my hand and those that remain a total mystery. Rereading “The Great Gatsby" is a comfort. Rereading “Finnegans Wake” is a headache. But both provide hidden treasure. Even for the parent who releases a great sigh and says, “okay, one more time,” there’s always something to discover.

The best memoirs bring the reader with them into those early years. This month brings a slew of new books that will either have you wanting to go back to the beginning or will take you back to the beginning anyway, to live through their vivid stories of childhood until you see something new about your own. I would submit Danielle Henderson’s wry account of her childhood, “The Ugly Cry” (Viking) to this list. It opens with a clarification: “I’ve never seen my grandmother bake a cookie, wear a shawl, give good advice, or hug a child unprompted.” The reader should not expect to touch on the familiar. Instead, Henderson strikes a heartfelt and hilarious note: “We also did fun things at school, like getting fingerprinted. The police were coming! To our class! Special!” as she assuredly escorts us through a life growing up dorky and Black in a predominantly white neighborhood in upstate New York. Henderson achieves that rare memoir texture of detail and drama, introducing us to the kid who read “Sassy,” adored horror movies, and was a regular at the arcade, but who also had to grapple with life-shaping issues like abandonment, identity, and race. “The Ugly Cry” is also a love letter to the unconventional and off-kilter family. Any reader would be so lucky to have Henderson’s grandmother rip a Nintendo joystick out of their hands — because it’s her turn.

Naturally, memoir does not have the patent on the past. In April, The Library of America released “Jean Stafford: Complete Stories & Other Writings,” with an introduction by Kathryn Davis, and this month will see a new edition of Stafford’s classic American epic, “Boston Adventure” (New York Review of Books). Indeed, 2021 is The Year of Jean Stafford (much like 2015 was The Year of Lucia Berlin, a short story writer who hit the bestseller list 11 years after her death). As Rumaan Alam writes in his introduction of “Boston Adventure,” Stafford had an outsized jones for Proust and his influence is apparent: “the whole enterprise is stubbornly old-fashioned, but that’s the very thing I love about it."

Published when Stafford was only 29, “Boston Adventure” is the story of 12-year-old Sonie Marburg, the daughter of Eastern European immigrant parents who came to Boston with big dreams, only to find relative destitution. Marburg sleeps on a pile of clothes as her delusional mother longs for the caviar and country houses she was promised. Marburg’s obsession with a sophisticated and wealthy woman at a local hotel, the unsubtly named Miss Pride, bears fruit when she is whisked off to Boston proper and exposed to 1930s Beacon Hill society. It is only then that Stafford’s filleting of patrician Bostonian culture begins in earnest. Stafford is known for her ability to crack into the minds of children. She has a little girl’s eye for detail. Herewith, Marburg’s survey of a bureau: “I stood for a few minutes before the mirror and, as I had done many times before, pulled out the stoppers of the bottles and inhaled their clean, alcoholic fragrance. I opened the black box and gazed upon the white silk button gloves, the yellowing white kid and black chamois ones, amongst which were scattered single cuff-links, broken bone buttons, a mysterious star-shaped broach and three edible beads.” The whole book is like this and yet it moves along at a Dickensian clip, particularly in the latter half when the cost of being beholden to Miss Pride becomes painfully apparent.



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Round-Trip Ticket

Congratulations to Lacie Waldon, a flight attendant who wrote her debut novel from the jump seat of an airplane, and who has thus given me a whole new productivity complex. Employing the grand theory of “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Layover” (Putnam) revisits an old grudge that morphs into a new romance as our would-be lovers are stranded in the tropics after a three-hour flight.

Right Back Where We Started From

It’s rare that recent memory is subject to extreme haze, but 2020 was extraordinary in this way. Lawrence Wright’s grounding “The Plague Year” (Knopf) takes us back through an unprecedented global unraveling, putting us in the halls of the CDC and the White House, providing a clearer view of a muddled time.

The Way Back

“A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” (Norton) is Martin Padgett’s drug-and-drag fueled evocation of 1970s southern queer culture, a civil rights revolution in tight black pants.


The gadflies of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels have taken leave for the author’s latest, “Double Blind” (FSG). This is the story of two Oxbridge best friends, an epigeneticist and a venture capitalist caught in a web of money, passion, and neuroscience.

Memory Lane

“Hard Like Water” (Grove) by the controversial novelist and satirist Yan Lianke tells the tale of two communist revolutionaries who fell in love in a hopeless place (a rural Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution). “After I die and things settle down,” the novel begins, “I’ll reevaluate my life, and specifically the cracks between my speech, behavior, posture, and my chickenshit love.”

Cold-Blooded Old Times

Lionel Shriver’s “Should We Stay or Should We Go” (Harper) is what would’ve happened if Romeo and Juliet had applied a little more thought to their ends. A couple in their 50s, repulsed by the undignified ravages of aging, makes a pact to take lethal tablets (kept in the back of the refrigerator) when they each turn 80. What follows is a meditative choose-your-own-adventure, returning again and again to the little matter of life and death.

Don't Look Back in Anger

"Three Women” author Lisa Taddeo’s erotically charged first novel “Animal” (Avid Reader) follows a woman who flees New York for Los Angeles, in search of the key to her past. This may not be the cheeriest return-to-the-past of the bunch, but it is the most blunt. Quoth our heroine: “Every single man in my life staked the path to murder.”

Our Contributors

Sloane Crosley Writer

Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” and “Look Alive Out There,” and the novel “The Clasp.” Her new novel, “Cult Classic,” is out now.

Marina Esmeraldo Illustrator

Marina Esmeraldo is a Brazilian-born, Barcelona-based illustrator, artist, and lecturer. Her award-winning work draws on a tropical upbringing, a modernist training in architecture, and her innate wanderlust.


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