Many years ago, when Rachel Kushner was conducting research for her next book project, she visited Sacramento’s California State Prison and met a former Los Angeles police officer, who was incarcerated for working as a contract killer. This experience was so profound that she loosely based a character on him in her third novel, The Mars Room, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its May 20 gathering.
The Mars Room has been described as an outstanding and distinguished departure from Kushner’s first two books, which are expansive historical novels detailing major moments of political upheaval and revolution. The Mars Room follows Romy Hall, a 29-year-old serving two life sentences and an additional six years at a women’s correctional facility in California’s Central Valley for murdering her stalker, whom she met at a strip club where she worked as a dancer.
The novel begins with Romy being moved to the facility and slowly takes us into the world of a high-security prison. We learn that incarcerated women communicate with one another across cell walls via plumbing, that they smuggle in pills by gluing them to the roofs of their mouths with peanut butter. Ramen noodles are hot commodities. Ice cream sandwiches can be delivered through toilets.
More than this, we become witnesses to Romy’s life and come to understand how she ended up in prison: she grew up in the Sunset district of San Francisco with her divorced mother, who was addicted to painkillers. She was sexually assaulted at the tender age of 11. She later became addicted to drugs and did sex work. And she has a child, Jackson, whom her mother is taking care of now that she cannot.
Kushner offers an unforgettable portrait of women who might be oft talked about in our current discourse of abolition and anti-carceral politics but are little seen or known. She has centered those who are damned, invisible, seemingly disposable and made to be forgotten. The Mars Room is daring in its imagination and delivery. It is a book you certainly should read.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Kushner on May 20, click here.
Did you miss last week’s CBC event with Myriam Gurba and Gustavo Arellano? If so, then be sure to check out our recap and recording of the event. Alta
MULTITUDES AND ESSAYS
In a book review, Anita Felicelli considers how Rachel Kushner, in her collection The Hard Crowd, gathered 20 years of essay writing to illuminate “the self’s ecstatic movement into the world and the world’s permeation of self.” Alta
L.A. TIMES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS
Now in its 25th year, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has gathered artists together to honor literature and the arts. Be sure to catch Alta contributor William Deverell as he joins a panel, “Making History,” with Viet Thanh Nguyen, Priya Jaikumar, and Howard Rodman. Los Angeles Times
INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE DAY
Independent Bookstore Day is a one-day event that takes place on the last Saturday in April and celebrates your local indie bookstore. Be sure to support your local indie store today, this weekend, and every day! San Diego Union-Tribune
Olivia Giovetti details the significance of operatic moments in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, which has garnered five Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture. Los Angeles Review of Books
GHOSTS AND POETRY
Joyelle McSweeney examines Douglas Kearney’s poetics and his “vexed and ecstatic engagement with the complexities of Black performance.” Poetry Foundation
HUGO AWARD FINALIST
Congratulations to CBC selection panel member Lynell George, who became a 2021 Hugo Award finalist for her book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler. Tor
HADADA AND PLIMPTON AWARDS
Last week, the Paris Review awarded N. Scott Momaday the 2021 Hadada Award, which honors a “distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature,” and Eloghosa Osunde the 2021 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, for her short story “Good Boy.” Paris Review
EMERGENCY RELIEF GRANTS
The American Library Association has made over $1 million in emergency aid available to libraries that have been severely affected by the pandemic. Publishers Weekly
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