There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.


Banana slugs are hermaphrodites who mate up to three times a day.


Democritus wrote seventy books. Only fragments survive.


Jenny Offill's book Weather is a near-constant outpouring of these moments: unrelated facts, brief email exchanges, even jokes. Weather also opens the door on Lizzie's life with her husband, Ben, their son, Eli, and her recovering addict brother, Henry. She's a librarian, he's in tech, Henry writes greeting card poems. They live in the city. Their names and occupations are there, of course, but they can feel somehow irrelevant. They exist between and around and perhaps even through the fragments that make up Jenny Offill's now-signature style.


Their stories matter, of course, but it is the fragments that survive.

As on 9/11 when paper scraps swirled in the air, what survives after the big event are the fragments of institutional daily operations, the turned down corner of the page, the Target receipt. It is merely ephemera; it is what remains.


Could the fragments be the whole? How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, is it not? In fact, the fragments are the weather. That it drizzled a little this afternoon but was much warmer this morning than expected. The way I can't seem to remember if we've always had new grass in November, or if that was just this year. The different ways spring starts to make itself known in different parts of the world. These moments are that old postcard tucked in your book when you got too tired to keep reading. You could see it every day and never really pay attention.


The weather is always changing. The climate, on the other hand, is supposed to be the water in our fishbowl. We're not supposed to even know what it is, but these days, it can feel like it's sloshing so violently we might soon be thrown over the edge. Lizzie feels this uncertainty, and like most of us, she swings between the weather and the climate - from the daily urgencies of school pick-up and work emails to the question of where might be the safest place to move when New York (its weather? its climate?) becomes unlivable. Offill doesn't privilege the existential threat, however; the ephemera is just as critical. Lizzie, worried about her self-destructive brother, stays on the phone trying anything to get him "to commit to the next day, the next hour, the next minute even." The addict and the planet might ultimately be doomed, but we still cling to the fragments that will survive.


So, maybe the water is agitated, and maybe despite (or because of) that, our job is to pay attention. To tell ourselves This is Water and finger the gum wrapper still in the pocket of last season's jacket and to show up and do what we can, each of us trying for the next day, the next hour, the next minute even.


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Weather is one of 16 longlisted titles being considered for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. For the full list, click here. The shortlist of 6 will be announced on April 22. The prize is announced on June 3. For other reviewed titles on the longlist, see below:


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

What does it mean when we say something has teeth? Are we referring to a thing's ferocity, or to the potential harm it could inflict? Commonly used to explain an authority to compel, I can't help but think, too, of other things with teeth: a comb, a saw, a smile. With those more nuanced definitions in place, here's an assertion: Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone has all the teeth.

Red at the Bone is fierce. There is a tension, the sense of a body coiled ready for a fight, coursing through all 196 pages of this powerful novel. It opens benignly enough: a gorgeous May evening,16-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony.

"This was their perfect moment. ...This house with its generations cheering, saying Dance, y'all and Ashé and The ancestors are in the house, say what? and everything and everyone around me was their dream come true now. If this moment was a sentence, I'd be the period."

The first line of the book, however, hints at the truth that this is no fairy tale: "But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing." That first word, covered over in contrast, tells us there is more to this story, more to every story that has ever been. Melody describes it as "something moving through me like a razor in my chest - I didn't know then if it was rage or sadness or fear," and it is all these things plus the perfect moment. The ferocity lies in the truth of life: that sometimes we have to fight tooth and nail, to bite and spit and claw our way to ourselves. Melody knows this. Iris, her mother, knows this. In fact, all of the women in this book embody this tension. Even if the teeth of this book barely graze you, it's going to hurt.


Woodson is a poet, a storyteller, an artisan working in words, and there can be no doubt that what she crafts stands with authority. Red at the Bone asserts its authority in every small segment of narrative and in the deft hand weaving each voice and each section together. The story moves back and forth in time, between young love and lust and identity and age and elders and legacy and pain, and though the pea may seem to be hidden under the shell, you are never uncertain about Woodson's authority. This is a book that compels. But it is also a swift untangling of the snarls it creates. The comb wielded by your less-nice aunt, the one that will get your head tidied up, even if it hurts in the process. The saw that cuts, but only so as to build again. And lord, it is the smile. Because even though it may be clouded at times, the smile where your teeth show is all over this book, too. The full-throated belly laugh, head thrown back in glee or pleasure, or even the smile through tears of loss mingled with hope - it is all these things.


It has teeth, I tell you.


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Red at the Bone is one of 16 longlisted titles being considered for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. For the full list, click here. The shortlist of 6 will be announced on April 22. The prize is announced on June 3. For other reviewed titles on the longlist, see below:


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!


Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

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