What is your favorite book? As a writer, this is the most common–and most dreaded–interview question I get. I know writers are supposed to be readers, and I am one. But my mind always goes blank.
In The Writer’s Library, literary mavens Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager ask this question of a slew of prominent authors. And these people know how to answer. This fascinating book is filled with 23 interviews with authors including T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, Madeline Miller, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Donna Tartt, and Ayelet Waldman on books that “made them think, brought them joy, and changed their lives.”
Books that Change (Writer’s) Lives
This is a book you’ll want to keep around just for the lists at the back of every chapter naming the most influential authors and books each author cites. If you want a great writer-vetted list of books to read before you die, this is a great list to keep on hand.
It’s also an affirmation of the joy of reading and books and writing. And a great guide to anyone looking to freshen up their reading list.
Literary Inferiority Complex
Admittedly, this book is a tad intimidating. Especially if you read the book chronologically, which I did. The first interview is with Jonathan Lethem, who seems not only to recall every favorite and influential book: he can instantly describe every obscure title he’s ever read in excruciating detail. Worse, his interviewers Nancy and Jeff can too!
Not only do these people seem to have instant recall of everyone they’ve read and why they’ve liked or disliked them. They also seem to remember minute details about plot, character, and style. I can barely remember what I read last night.
Writers who also teach writing or review books for a living have better recall. That makes sense.
But as you read on, you realize that having an elephant’s memory for literature is not necessarily a prerequisite for literary success. Some writers (e.g., T.C., Boyle) say they change their minds daily about favorite books. Others say they can’t recall what they read 2 weeks ago. For plenty of writers, it took the discussion itself to dredge up memories. Phew.
Building a Writer’s Library
For all the feelings of literary inadequacy this book fueled, I had one moment of vindication when one of the interviewers admitted never having made it through Proust.
Here I get some points: By devoting part of every evening to reading 10 pages for nearly a year now, I am now in the home stretch. I only have 700 or so pages left to go.
Now I’m hankering to finish so I can devote my Proust-time to these new luscious books.
Here the problem wasn’t just the dialect and accent, which I found hard to understand. It was the voice.
This gripping and heart-wrenching story is told through the narrative voice of Adunni, a 14-year-old girl from a small rural village in Nigeria. She speaks in what I believe is a version of pidgin English, which struck me as similar to the speech of many non-native English speakers. Many listeners praised this “Nigerian accent” in Amazon reviews.
I’m all for dialect, too. I used it myself extensively in my historical novel Time’s Fool. This novel consisted of diary entries from a variety of speakers, from different worlds. I tried to mimic the way they actually spoke.
But I found the dialect in The Girl With the Louding Voice distracting. And disturbing. Combined with a heavy accent, it made the audiobook hard to listen to, especially at first.
The language and pronunciation bothered me throughout book. What language was Adunni supposed to be speaking? Does Adunni speak English, the official language of Nigeria, back in her village? Or does she speak Yoruba or one of the many native languges sill spoken in rural areas?
I kept wondering why she would choose to tell her story in pidgin English when she has presumably learned better grammar by the end of the book? I wondered whether this was the way she hears her own story in her head, or the way she explains it to an English speaker.
I’m far from an expert on these matters (in fact, my knowledge of language in Nigeria comes completely from Google searches). But wondering about these matters, and simply trying to understand the words pulled me out of the narrative–always annoying but particularly so when you’re listening to a book and have to to press pause.
Adjustment to Accents and Dialect
For the first half of the book at least, I couldn’t follow the story. The syntax was wrong. The diction was wrong. Combined with the reader’s heavy accent, I found the book so hard to understand that I missed full sentences.
Not hearing the names right also pulled me out of the narrative. “Lagos” sounded like “legos.” The narrator’s younger brother is named Kayus, but it sounded like “Chaos.” I had to laugh every time she referred to him.
I adjusted to this kind of thing over time. I discovered that the author did it deliberately, and often quite effectively. The way Adunni speaks turned out to be central to the story, and part of its charm.
Once I understood that this novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old who just left her rural village, it made sense that she speaks English imperfectly. She speaks in the voice of a Nigerian new to English, not in the voice of a rural and uneducated Nigerian.
But I had been distracted out of the action early on and still wonder if that was worth it.
An Authorial Choice
I took me quite a while to see that Adunni’s dialect had to be written on purpose. There were certainly clues–particularly the fact that because other characters spoke more fluently, including the cook in the house Adunni works at as a maid.
Daré is also clearly acutely aware of language, too. Not only do various characters speak with different dialects, but Adunni herself notices differences in pronunciation, syntax, and language. She hears the word as “sorry” and asks if that was a sad place, for example. That’s a pun that only makes sense if they were having a conversation in English.
Adunni also likes to read the dictionary and often reflects on English words. She observes that one house staff member always pronounced p as f and vice versa. She uses English words to illustrate this point: “So when he say help, it sound like helf.”
Adunni even comes to understand that English, a language she strives to speak and read better, isn’t a sign of superiority. “Now I know that speaking good English is not the measure of intelligent man and sharp brain….Nothing about it is special.” It’s just a language like any other language.
The Language of the Louding Voice
Language, of course, is at the heart of any writing—and certainly a challenge in any form of communication. But in a book so clearly about language (even its title mentions “voice”), the quandary of which voice and language to use is particularly challenging.
And I credit Daré, and this novel, with forcing me to think more about that.
Indeed, my reservations about Daré’’s intentions disappeared when Adunni herself showed her keen awareness of dialect. Everybody in the whole world be speaking different…,” she observes. “They all be speaking different because we all are having different grain of life. But we can all be understanding each other if we just take the time to listen well.”
I guess I need to learn to listen better.
Narrator vs. Character
Because Adunni is the narrator, we believe we are hearing her authentic voice. But The Girl With a Louding Voice is a first-person novel by a non-native English speaker written in English for English readers. This adds another layer that needs unravelling about character and language alike. It raises questions about who is speaking, to whom, and when that wouldn’t occur if story were told in English by a native English speaker.
Writing in pidgen English certainly gives the book flavor and shows us how Adunni came off to others in Lagos. We get a sense of how Adunni speaks as she strives to improve her English. But what about Adunni’s voice? Is that the same thing as the way she speaks?
What troubles me here is that Adunni does speak Yoruba fluently. Ms. Tia, a woman who comes to her aid, literally says so. So why doesn’t Adunni tell the story in that language and/or its English equivalent? Surely that would better reflect the way her mind works.
Of course, the book had to be in English. But could it have been in the English equivalent of Adunni’s level of fluency in her original tongue? Or was it better to have her speak the way we English speakers would hear or perceive a person like Adunni?
Finding the Real Louding Voice
If Adunni had just been a character, not the narrator, these questions would never have arisen. Adunni’s speech could have been conveyed in dialogue, which would have captured the cadence of the Adunni’s language and her struggles to learn English.
It’s not that I object to using the first-person to tell the story. That’s exactly what I did in Time’s Fool, in fact. But because that was an epistolary novel, told in a series of memoirs, the voice of the narrator never conflicted with the voice of the character.
But Adunni is not just a character, but the story’s protagonist–so she really has to tell the story. Alas, as both protagonist and narrator, she comes off to readers as half illiterate. And in some ways that is good. The voice leaves readers with a sense of Adunni’s incomplete education and innocence–perfectly right, given both her experience and her age.
And yet I left the book still feeling a bit cheated by the multi-layered voice that represented one language with another. Aside from the distracting me from hearing the narrative, they left me feeling like I didn’t have full or fair insight into Adunni’s mind.
Last month I asked readers about favorite books on pandemics, plagues, exile, quarantines, and social isolation–on many of our minds for obvious reasons. This month I wanted to share the list of selections in case you have a bit of time on your hands.
Thanks to everyone who helped me build these lists. I’m looking forward to reading some of the selections as the lock-downs promise to continue. Then again, perhaps I’ll just keep plowing through Proust.
Fictional Books on Pandemics, Plagues, and Social Isolation
Here’s a short list of fictional books on pandemics, plagues, and other human tragedies that require quarantines and other forms of social isolation:
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Ten young Italian aristocrats flee Florence to escape the bubonic plague and self-isolate in a secluded countryside villa telling stories, some tragic, some bawdy and irreverent. (Also worth watching is The Little Hours, a slapstick black comedy loosely based on some of the tales they tell. )
- The Plague by Albert Camus. Classic existential novel about a plague sweeping a North African coastal town.
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A powerful love story set in part during a cholera outbreak by a master of magical realism.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. A prize-winning novel that takes place before and after a fictional swine flu pandemic has killed most of the world’s population.
- The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. A chillingly prescient story first published in 1909 about a technology-dependent humanity living underground in separate cells.
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. The story of a Russian aristocrat ordered by the Soviet regime to spend his entire life inside a luxury hotel.
- Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak. A fast-paced, funny story about a family forced to quarantine with each other for just one week because of an epidemic.
- The Choiera Years by Charles Rosenberg. A foundational work of the modern history of medicine, focusing on the impact of cholera cholera in the 19th century on American thought and society.
- Flu by Gina Kolata. A bestseller by an acclaimed science writer about the 1918 flu pandemic.
- Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill. Epidemiological history, originally published in 1976, presenting infectious disease as a means of enemy attack.
- The Great Influenza by John Barry. The story of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
- The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. The story of the origins of the Ebola Virus.
Lists of Lists
Naturally my idea isn’t original. If you don’t like the picks above, there are plenty of other great lists to choose from. So here are two select lists of (self-titled) lists for your convenience.
In true click-bait fashion, many claim to be “the best.” You can decide:
Lists of Books about Plagues and Pandemics
- The 16 Best Pandemic Books, Fiction and Nonfiction
- 7 Essential Books About Pandemics–New York Times
- The Best Books on Pandemics
- TC and the Coronavirus: Non-Fiction Books about Viruses and Pandemics
- Books and Epidemics (Penguin/Random House)
- Pandemics: An Essential Reading List
- 5 Books About Pandemics and Epidemics (AARP)
- The Best Non-Fiction Books About Pandemics, Diseases, and Outbreaks of the Past
- Daily Briefing: The Best Books on Past Pandemics to Read Now
Lists of Books about Social Isolation and Loneliness
In a year like no other in living memory, many of us turned to the comfort that books can offer when the world is too much. Unlike many of my friends and social network connections, I continued to go into an office every workday throughout the year, so I never found myself with the kind of enforced leisure time that so many encountered during 2020, but I still found myself burrowed in books—either reading them or listening to them—whenever possible, and I will own up to using them as an escape mechanism. Most I read to review, either here in my bimonthly column or for my regular reviewing gig for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
In the hotly contested election year that was, my reviewing skewed heavily political, starting with Unmaking the Presidency, which was released on the first day of the January 2020 impeachment trial—and before virtually any of us had heard of the other issue that would consume our year, covid—and ending with What Were We Thinking, my review of which came out on election day. For the Independent’s “Best Book I Read in 2020,” I made a hard choice and said mine was OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?, “because America needs to re-learn its civics, and this is a great place to start.”
In a bit of serendipity, I read three books in row that fit neatly together in a feminist trio of echoed themes: Recollections of My Non-Existence, Too Much, and Why Fish Don’t Exist. In other parallels, The Doctor of Aleppo reminded me of earlier Elliot Ackerman novels, while Ackerman’s latest novel, Red Dress in Black and White, had stunningly eerie parallels to the moment into which it was released, at the start of this summer’s protests for racial justice.
So not even the fiction I read this year was exactly escapist. Let us hope that 2021 doesn’t need as much of an escape, that we can emerge from our protective crouch and rejoin the world around us as vaccines take hold and help us to beat back the darkness. And, as this column is posted on Inauguration Day, I also send out thanks for a speedy return to empathy, understanding, and competence. And may your 2021 reading bring you joy just for itself, just as it should be.
Books I read to review, with links to the reviews:
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
The Boy in the Field, Margot Livesey
It Was All A Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, Stuart Stevens
Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why: Essays, Alexandra Petri
Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
Red Dress in Black and White: A Novel, Elliot Ackerman
Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings, Valerie Trouet
Galileo and the Science Deniers, Mario Livio
Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller
Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, Rachel Vorona Cote
Recollections of My Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit
Little Constructions: A Novel, Anna Burns
Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office, Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes
Coventry: Essays, Rachel Cusk
Ordinary Girls: A Memoir, Jaquira Diaz
The Doctor of Aleppo, Dan Mayland
The Ghost in the House, Sara O’Leary
Known By Heart, Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Books reviewed together in my column Brief but Indelible
- Midnight at the Organporium, Tara Campbell
- How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman
Books Reviewed together in my column 2020 Summer & Fall Reading Round-up
- Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency, Bea Koch
- The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew, Denise Heinze
- When We Were Young and Brave, Hazel Gaynor
- Blacktop Wasteland, S. A. Cosby
- The Vultures, Mark Hannon
- They’re Gone, E. A. Barres
Books I read to prepare for my interview with Louis Bayard at the virtual 2020 Gaithersburg Book Festival:
- Courting Mr. Lincoln
- Roosevelt’s Beast
- Lucky Strikes
- Mr. Timothy
Books I read or listened to for sheer pleasure:
- Salt the Snow, Carrie Callaghan
- The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
- Milkman, Anna Burns
- Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
- The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel
Books I read and chose not to review:
- Butch Cassidy, Charles Leerhsen
- A Woman Alone, Nina Laurin
Books still in progress at the end of the year:
- Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
- Blood Dark Track: A Family History, Joseph O’Neill
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
2020 has been a year for pulling the covers over my head and disappearing into books; that approach has been far preferable to facing reality. And I’m sending my very best to all the authors whose books have been released into this year of social distancing — as though launching a book into the world wasn’t hard enough already. Here are six that I’ve read in the last six months.
Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency
Grand Central Publishing
“Regency romance” is a distinct and very popular genre of fiction — ignited by that most famous of Regency-period authors, Jane Austin — and one that author Bea Koch, owner of The Ripped Bodice indie bookstore in Culver City, California, knows well. Named for the ten-year period from 1810-1820 in which the Prince of Wales served as Regent for his ailing father, George III, the Regency left an outsized historical mark given its relatively tiny slice of time in between the Georgian and Victorian eras of English history. Koch’s objective in Mad and Bad is to highlight the women — famous (or infamous) in their time, talented, artistic, often trailblazing and unconventional — whose place in history has been diminished or largely ignored.
Koch focuses each chapter on a particular cohort of women, from the social arbiters to the royalty to the mistresses, to the artistic and the scientific. Some women are so ubiquitous that they make an appearance in virtually every chapter, such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who checks several boxes herself and was a friend or patron to many of the women profiled here. It is this network of women supporting each other that is significant to the historical record the author illuminates for us. Helpfully, Koch ends each chapter with a “Recommended Reading” list that includes both fiction and non-fiction resources, along with occasional film recommendations. Koch provides an engaging and deeply researched homage to an era of exceptional women.
(As a bonus: readers who enjoy Mad and Bad may want to pair it with another 2020 Grand Central release, Rachel Vorona Cote’s Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, which I reviewed for the Washington Independent Review of Books.)
Two historical novels I read recently are from widely disparate slices of history — one from the early 1600s and the other set during World War II — but share themes of deprivation, separation, and life in a brutally hostile environment.
The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew
When We Were Young and Brave
William Morrow Paperbacks
In Denise Heinze’s The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew, the first-person narrator, from many years’ remove, is hurrying to capture her witness to the near-collapse of the Jamestown settlement during the winter of 1609-10, which became known as The Starving Time. Like most of her fellow colonists, Temperance has none of the skills needed to survive in a harsh environment, though her maid Lily, with far more practical abilities, provides for them both. The modern reader may tend toward sympathy for the Native Americans who are forced to deal with the bumbling incompetence and increasing violence of the interlopers; fed up, they finally lay siege to the tiny settlement throughout that winter in order to rid themselves of the colonists. What becomes surprising is not that so many people died but that any survived at all. Of course, their method of survival lies at the heart of the story.
In Hazel Gaynor’s When We Were Young and Brave, a private school for the children of British and American missionaries in China comes under Japanese control at the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The story is told from the dual perspectives of ten-year-old Nancy Plummer and her teacher Elspeth Kent, whose unsentimental shepherding of her charges belies the many doubts she has about herself and her ability to hold up under the increasing brutality of their situation. She uses the discipline and focus of Girl Guides (similar to Girl Scouts) to instill a sense of order and purpose through their trials. As for Nancy, though it is a long British tradition for children to be sent away from their parents for schooling, her interior struggles drive home the emotional cost of that separation, even under the best of circumstances.
Both Heinze and Gaynor have done meticulous research into the historical record that underpins their stories, and both pull the reader into the time and place they describe. Their challenge in building a compelling story arc is that, generally, starvation and captivity are both slow, wearying processes. In the case of Flowerdew, Heinze hints at an underlying story of Temperance’s unhappy, politically motivated marriage of convenience to the second governor of Jamestown, Francis West, after being widowed by the first governor, Sir George Yeardley. Unfortunately, the tug of that untold story threatens to overshadow the one that Heinze has chosen to tell. For Brave, I almost felt that a narrative non-fiction treatment might have given the reader a deeper appreciation for this slice of history. Still, both of these stories feature intriguing women who are forced to find reserves that they did not know they had to pull their communities through the bitterest of trials.
S. A. Cosby
S. A. Cosby’s debut novel, Blacktop Wasteland, has had mounds of praise heaped upon it, with blurbs from Lee Childs and Stephen King; its most recent accolade is being included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2020. So the author hardly needs me to add my voice to the chorus, but I will. Of all the books I have enjoyed this year, this is the one for which I will give my own personal starred review.
Beauregard “Bug” Montage is getting squeezed from all sides: doctor bills for his boys, college tuition for his estranged daughter, a garage that’s losing business to the big new repair shop in town and rent coming due, and a nursing home that’s threatening to evict his snake-mean mother unless he can cover her debts. Bug is trying to do everything right, but nothing seems to be breaking his way. He’s a good husband and father, a good businessman and mechanic, a good and loyal friend. Unfortunately, he’s also the best get-away driver anywhere on the East Coast, a talent he inherited from his long-gone father. Thus, when some old associates insist they have the makings of the perfect heist, Bug weighs the risks and rewards and decides he has little choice but to join the crew.
Cosby does a remarkable job of turning the screws on his plot, where just as readers feel they are cresting the hill, another twist gets thrown in, the stakes keep growing, and the bad guys keep getting worse. Generally, I’m not a fan of the damaged anti-hero as protagonist, but in Beauregard Montage, Cosby has given us a fully realized character that we are genuinely pulling for, whose struggle toward redemption for himself and his family we can cheer.
As an aside, I listened to the audio book over the summer, as read by Adam Lazarre-White. Certainly listening to a book is a wholly different experience than reading it, but the narrator brought Cosby’s characters into living, breathing three-dimensional reality. This is a great one to listen to.
Apprentice House Press
Some stories are so steeped in the geography and culture of their locale that the place is practically one of the characters. Retired firefighter and author Mark Hannon is a native of Buffalo, New York, and that’s where he has located his protagonist, Pat Brogan, in both his first novel, Every Man for Himself, and now in his second, The Vultures, set in the early 1970s. In this latest, Brogan has just retired from the Buffalo police force and is now working as an investigator for the D.A. When the owner of the Buffalo Bills threatens to move the team unless he gets a new stadium, political and financial shenanigans abound in the initially well-intentioned quest to revitalize the ailing downtown while keeping the beloved team. As Brogan works to sort out which vulture is up to what, his elder son Rory suffers a catastrophic injury in Vietnam while his younger son Tommy is getting mixed up with radical war protestors on the UB campus.
Hannon does a fine job of laying out the many threads of his story, and pulls the reader along as she wonders how he is going to tie them all together. He has a knack for capturing his characters in a few quick, pointed strokes, though the constantly expanding cast is sometimes difficult to follow. But it’s clear that the author has a soft spot for many of his characters, as well as genuine affection for the scuffed-up city they inhabit.
E. A. Barres
Crooked Lane Books
Fans of his previous crime fiction know him as E. A. Aymar; They’re Gone is the author’s first release writing as E. A. Barres. This latest follows The Unrepentant as his second novel exploring the brutal, ugly world of sex trafficking. Here, two women are thrown together when their husbands are both killed on the same night in the same way: two bullets, one to the head and another to the heart. Deb, a suburban mom in Northern Virginia, feels that she and her daughter Kim have lost their center, until she begins to discover that her husband Grant had a secret life involving prostitutes. Cessy, a bartender in Baltimore, is less sad when she learns her abusive husband won’t be coming home, but her relief is short-lived when the men he’s in debt to look to her to pay up.
Though it takes time for Deb and Cessy to find each other, the action cranks up quickly, and the bodies of both the innocent and guilty start to pile up. Cessy’s hard life has better prepared her to deal with the thugs who come after them, while Deb is initially far less capable in a series of life-or-death situations. Barres takes the time to develop his characters, and sprinkles in his signature quirky methods of comic relief amidst the rising tension, such as sending in Cessy’s cheerfully unhinged brother, Chris, to help deal with the bad guys, or having the politically powerful and efficiently brutal ringmaster be a self-enlightenment enthusiast who is constantly spouting things like, “Destiny reflects where you’re going, but strength is how you get there.” There are times when the killers seem as ill-prepared as their would-be victims — especially since one of them has inconveniently fallen in love with Deb — but Barres keeps things taut as he drives the story to a satisfyingly slam-bang climax. Most of all, though, I appreciate that Barres acknowledges that getting away is not the same as emerging unscathed.
The Doctor of Aleppo, Dan Mayland, Black Stone Publishing
Dan Mayland is known for his Mark Sava spy series, which is focused in Azerbaijan and other Caspian and Middle Eastern regions that are often only names with fuzzy associations for the American reader. Mayland’s personal experience is steeped in these regions — Georgia, Bahrain — as well as Iran, Turkey, and Syria, whose conflicts many Americans realize they should know more about, but typically don’t.
With The Doctor of Aleppo, Mayland takes a break from globe-trotting spy thrillers to bring us a deeply humane, closely observed view into the unspooling of Syria from civil unrest into protracted civil war. Fans of Elliot Ackerman’s similarly compelling stories of the human cost of Middle Eastern conflicts — in this case, Dark at the Crossing in particular — will discover a kindred spirit here.
SILAS MARNER by George Eliot tells the tale of a weaver in nineteenth-century England named Silas Marner, who finds himself fallen among hard times when he is falsely accused of a crime, and the woman he expects to marry suddenly marries someone else. Silas moves to another town after being effectively banished from his native Lantern Yard. Silas, through no fault of his own, must live as best he can in his new town of Raveloe. Through the story of Silas, the novel punctuates how cruel and then how fortuitous fate is in life.
Upon moving to Raveloe, Silas’ loneliness is compounded by a robbery. When he moves into a little house, Silas still has one aspect of his life that remains constant, his work. He continues to weave, and the demand for his work is steady. As a result, his income increases, and he falls into the habit of counting his gold coins each day. He doesn’t attend church services and becomes a recluse in the town. Dunstan Cass, who is of the higher class of Raveloe society but of low moral character, creeps into Silas’ house one night while Silas is away and steals his gold coins. Silas is devastated. He runs into the local tavern immediately and demands the return of his money to everyone in the tavern. Fate has no pity for Silas.
The introduction of Eppie into Silas’ life gives the weaver good fortune at last. Godfrey Cass, the brother of Dunstan, marries a poor young woman and has a daughter by her. But the young marriage doesn’t last; Godfrey separates from his wife and child. The young woman becomes destitute. One night she collapses out in a snowstorm with the toddler in her arms. The toddler makes her way to Silas house, which is nearby and unlocked. Silas finds the toddler at his hearth and immediately takes care of her, eventually calling her Eppie. The adopted daughter brings great joy to the man, who before had only his money to make him content with life.
Eliot’s masterpiece shows both how cruel and how kind fate can be to an individual’s life. Silas has nothing going for him, especially after he is robbed in Raveloe. The town’s population show no pity for an outsider who doesn’t attend church. With the adoption of Eppie, Silas’ image begins to change. He confides in a woman of the town about how to raise the child and begins going to church. His heart grows very fond of the girl, which the rest of the town notices.
Although there are complicated words and the use of the hard-to-follow vernacular, or slang, of the nineteenth-century England, this straightforward novel ranks as a classic in literary fiction. Bravo to George Eliot.
Sara O’Leary is a prolific writer of short fiction and children’s books, as well as a former columnist for The Vancouver Sun and CBC radio, and she holds a degree in screen writing from the University of British Columbia.
It is that last credential that seems to heavily inform The Ghost in the House, O’Leary’s debut novel. Its short, pointed scenes would lend themselves well to a visual treatment. Even so, there is poetry in the language — entrancing and, indeed, haunting — that beckons us along.
As we know from the book jacket, it is the main character, Fay, who is the ghost of the title. We step into the story exactly where she does, and see through Fay’s eyes as she attempts to make sense of her altered reality.
We untangle that reality along with her, as she begins to grasp that her beloved husband, Alec, has remarried after Fay’s death, but remained in their home of fourteen years—the house Fay has loved and longed for since her childhood, the house she loves so much that Alec gives her a dollhouse replica of it for her birthday.
Into this house he brings his new wife Janet and her disaffected thirteen-year-old daughter Dee. It is Dee who first discovers Fay, even before Fay is able to find Alec anywhere inside their home. Dee believes that she has summoned Fay, in an effort to haunt her mother out of the house and back to her father.
O’Leary does a lovely job of deciding what will and won’t be possible in the house-bound ghost universe that she has created. Fay can’t touch anyone without causing an electrical shock, and she emits a chill that makes those near her shiver. Her movements seem very corporeal; she doesn’t float or pass through walls — though she does fade in and out — but she learns what’s possible and adapts as she goes.
“I try to turn the knob and it slips through my hand. Or, to be more accurate, my hand slips through it. Objects have lost their solidity. I concentrate hard, think of the shape of the crystal-faceted doorknob and how it used to feel under my palm. I imagine turning it and find suddenly that I can.”
In an interesting twist, Alec cannot see Fay until after she stages a destructive late-night tantrum in the kitchen. What makes this ghost angry is the knowledge that another woman has replaced her in her husband’s heart and in his bed — that after everything, she was replaceable.
Of course, we instinctively dislike Janet, who gratingly calls Alec “Al”. Our animosity is egged on by Fay’s description. “Her features are slightly too regular. Her hair is a pale blonde with streaks of paler blonde. It looks expensive.”
The clear signal that we should not like her, though, is the bland home decorating that has erased Fay from the landscape: her beautiful blue damask wallpaper replaced by paint “that can only be described as griege,” and “a pair of slipcovered wing chairs the colour of the smudge you leave behind when you erase something written in pencil.”
Fay has ample time now to reflect on how much time she wasted, never able to discover the right fit for her artistic impulses, and never, after an early miscarriage, deciding that she truly did want a family. “How did I go through my life and make all these decisions without realizing they were decisions? Why did nothing ever feel final?” She had always thought there was plenty of time. Now she wants it all back — her house, her husband, her life. She wants to be happy again.
Except that she wasn’t happy, at least as far as Alec is concerned. “You always wanted something you didn’t have or imagined you didn’t have. You complained all the time, Fay. All the time.” Perhaps she is airbrushing the memories of both her life and herself now that she can’t do anything about either one.
Still, her death devastated him, but his life continued until he achieved some semblance of equanimity. It was his decorating makeover that removed the traces of Fay, so that the house would stop torturing him. Now he has Janet and Dee, and it’s obvious that he loves them both. Fay’s presence in the house, which for Alec is both a delight and a torment, is torturing them all.
The Ghost in the House is a novel of longing, of yearning, for all the things we can’t have — most critically for the time that is behind us, for the opportunities that have passed out of reach, for the fissures that can no longer be fixed. Sometimes, finding acceptance is the best — the only — thing that we can do.
Known by Heart, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House Press, 185 pp, 2020.
Fans of Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s work—from her earlier short story collection Contents Under Pressure and novel The Bowl with Gold Seams—know that there is nothing showy about her writing. It is understated, unadorned, much as the Quaker philosophy that often forms a theme in her work. But that is not to say that it is simple.
Her latest story collection, Known By Heart, is filled with quiet, nuanced stories of memory and yearning, betrayal and reconciliation, resentment and forgiveness, rekindling and extinguishing love, heartbreak in all its forms. These are stories of quotidian life, universal and instantly recognizable, and still electric with possibilities and surprise.
Geography links many of the stories here, in the rural heart of Bedford, Pennsylvania, but there are other links as well, and the delicacy of the connections across a number of these stories is part of their delight, as they offer another look, the unspooling of a deeper story. Still, many end on an unresolved note, a question hanging in the air. Here, as in life, there are no easy answers.
In the title story, “Known by Heart,” Alan watches as his wife Grace draws farther and farther into dementia, and pushes back against his daughter Frances’s increasing pressure to accept outside help, sure that he can be everything that Grace needs. Campbell’s recounting of each step on the downward spiral echoes painfully of Alan and Grace’s shared loss, though one that only he is bearing.
When they visit their farm and she wanders away in the middle of the night, neighbors and volunteer firefighters look for her. “Alan wanted to go along but he was marooned on deck while others dove in the sea of dark forest, trolling for Grace. He rang the bell. It was all he could do.”
That story is followed by “Estates and Trust,” which focuses on Alan and Grace’s daughters, Frances and Kate, sisters locked in a lifelong battle for primacy within the family. One of the few things that their mother could remember as she slipped farther into dementia was her husband’s one affair from decades ago, an event that Kate now realizes interrupted her own budding relationship, ended before it properly began. “She . . . stared into the embers of her father’s last fire. Time was what she wanted back. Non-refundable, non-renewable time.”
The fraught relationship of sisters is plumbed again, even more painfully, in “Duets and Solos,” as is the horrors of aging in the modern world, both as caregiver and patient, in “Ruby.”
Here, Campbell continues sketching the vivid, chilling portrait of assisted living she began in the title story. First, there are the relatives. As Ruby’s widower husband Pete thinks of his niece, Sheila, “She meant well, but her anxious voice and hover, her eagerness to solve his problems (and solve her problem: Pete) wore him out.” And, as Pete’s friend Helen remarks, the residents and their caregivers are together in being beneath society’s notice: “We’re invisible because we’re old. They’re brown.”
Grief stalks many of these stories, most painfully in “A Long Time to be Gone,” which is coupled with its prelude, “Out of This World,” a snapshot of harried mother Bonnie and her own mother, a retired teacher, talking on the phone as they watch the historic launch of the space shuttle Challenger, followed immediately by its explosion. The next story finds Bonnie and her family on a normal, crazy Saturday morning, trying to collect up the two girls and the dog to get to the soccer game. And—as we all know it can—from one second to the next, life changes forever.
To say that something is known by heart is to imply that it has been repeated, over and over, to the point that it is done without thought. But to know something by heart also says that it is loved, that it brings a measure of joy. Even when they are describing heartbreak, these stories, with their deeply abiding humanity, bring that measure of joy.
Fallible by Kyle Bradford Jones is a memoir about the author’s struggle with mental illness, particularly during his grueling training as a physician. Dr. Jones is never cured of his anxiety and depression, which he describes as an invisible omnipresent “gargoyle” that waxes and wanes through about a decade of his life.
Early in his medical training, Dr. Jones notices that his symptoms of anxiety are exacerbated by the stresses of medical school. Even the road to acceptance into a program has been rough for the young man, who is married and whose wife is expecting their first child. In addition, the couple moves out of state, away from the support of both of their families. Fellow students in his medical program begin dropping out or developing mental disorders of their own. Dr. Jones’ wife, Becki, begins to suffer from isolation as she cares for their newborn in a government-subsidized apartment. The gargoyle that represents his illness is gaining traction.
Dr. Jones’ struggles increase as he begins clinical rotations. During his surgical rotation, after his frustrated attending surgeon throws a scalpel at an orderly, he writes in the memoir, “I had not signed up for this, and I now feared that entering the world of medicine would cost me my soul.” Some of the behavior of other senior doctors that teach him as he graduates from medical school and works in his residency, stun him. He seriously questions his career choice.
Throughout the memoir, Dr. Jones repeatedly seeks help for his deteriorating mental state, but he doesn’t get complete satisfaction or respite from his encounters with various clinicians. The stigma of mental illness is greater among physicians than the general public; he even resorts to self-treatment at one point.
Fallible is important because, as Dr. Jones notes, physicians are three times more likely to develop a mental illness than the general public. They also die by suicide at a higher rate. Dr. Jones explores why this is so: Is it the broken United States health care system, or the erroneous attitude of patients and their families that physicians are gods, capable of curing anything?
Dr. Jones’ writing shines. He has a tremendous vocabulary and a concise style. His explanations of complex topics such as neurotransmitters, which cause some mental illnesses, are clear. His suggestions for fixing a broken medical system in the United States are well thought out.
Fallible is a must read for anyone considering a medical profession. It’s not for the faint of heart; Dr. Jones gets into specifics about the good, the bad, and the ugly of caring for patients while coping with his anxiety and depression.
The memoir was published by Black Rose Writing earlier this month and is available on Amazon.
MANIC WARS by Trina Ann Pion is a raw look at mental illness and how those who suffer from it are poorly treated even in a developed nation. This novel follows Christina Wars, who suffers from bipolar disorder, and her life over the span of about two months in Montreal, Canada. Ms. Pion inflects her own degrading experiences with mental illness and the health and justice systems into the novel. The story illuminates a world of unfairness and distrust to which these patients are subjected.
It is clear from Christina’s first hospitalization that the odds are stacked against her as she navigates the health system. Or, as the story unfolds, the health system dictates what happens to her. Although she’s brought to a hospital against her will, it is for the best because she wrecks her house and is acting irrationally, but she can’t even have a cigarette until she has hounded the staff there.
Also, she’s worried about her children and her future of studying at her university. Her ex-boyfriend Ricky is trying to control her and their children’s lives, and she can’t do anything about it when she’s locked up in a psych ward. Or are these fears part of her disorder? The reader and even Christina aren’t sure.
Next, after Christina is released from the hospital, her mania gets her into trouble again, and she returns. This time the police are involved, and the nightmare only worsens for the protagonist. She is brought back to the same hospital for a short while, but the attitudes of the staff toward her are much different. Why? After an appearance before a judge, Christina is moved to a jail wing for the criminally insane. The conditions can be best described as barbaric. Christina must protect herself from her fellow detainees, who have probably committed worse crimes than what she is charged with, and the manipulative guards during her internal battle with her disorder.
The bulk of the story follows Christina’s stay in this jail, as well as a hospital wing stay afterwards in a notorious prison for the mentally ill. Will she ever be released and go back home? That’s the main problem that Christina and the reader want resolved.
Overall, the story is realistic and debunks many myths surrounding mental illness. Christina is constantly afraid. She fears the doctors, the police, and the guards in the jail. Usually it is the public who are afraid of the mentally ill, be it that the mentally ill are supposed to be dangerous, but this first-person protagonist flips the script. She is constantly afraid that the police will shoot her dead in public, mentioning it throughout the novel. She fears her erratic thoughts will overcome her because she isn’t receiving the correct medicine regimen in jail. And she’s afraid the guards won’t care what happens to her while she’s under their watch. The reader is sympathetic to her plight because many of these fears are real and not part of her disorder.
Although the writing is well-done, the ending is abrupt and leaves the reader wondering what happens next. A sequel would fit in nicely to pick up this cliffhanger at its beginning.
MANIC WARS, published by Jaded Moon Publishing, was released earlier this month and is available on Amazon.
When next you find yourself with a few unplanned hours — a lazy Sunday and nothing on the calendar, perhaps — I recommend reaching for Tara Campbell’s Midnight at the Organporium or Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit, two slender volumes, both of which offer the satisfaction of being consumable in a single sitting. The authors are both masters of the short form, packing freight and resonance into a small space. The books may be brief, but the stories they tell are indelible.
Midnight at the Organporium
Aquaduct Press, 2019
I’ve met the real-life inspiration for Eugene, the overly protective houseplant that spills out of “New Growth,” one of eleven stories in Tara Campbell’s most recent collection. The real plant is named Maxine, and her sprawling vines, like those of her fictional alter ego, are taped up across the ceiling of her living room, reaching out, cascading — a green canopy in the interior landscape.
I’m pretty sure that’s where the resemblance to Eugene ends, but leave it to Campbell’s febrile imagination to consider the use to which those viney arms might be put. More than that, though, is how the author, in just a few quick strokes, shows us the fraught relationship between Misty and Joe, practically giving us their entire backstory in the simple sentence, “The edge in his voice told her to stay on the couch, out of his way.”
Campbell is the author of the novel TreeVolution, another view into vegetative revenge, and the story collection Circe’s Bicycle. The genius in so much of Campbell’s speculative and science fiction is how she simply takes a quarter turn on reality and presents it back to us, so fully recognizable — except. Or how she considers a fairy tale that needs just one more twist on the familiar tale.
Another story, “Speculum Crede,” riffs on the concept of how we see ourselves compared to how others see us, following that idea towards its logical conclusion, in a fever dream sort of way. And the title story, “Midnight at the Organporium,” transforms the sentiment, “I gave you my heart,” from the figurative to the literal.
Yet my favorite story in the collection is reality with no twist at all, just a painfully funny snippet of life unfiltered. “Aftermilk” offers us the harried fifteen minutes of breakfast time before the school bus pulls up, staggering under the weight of jaundiced advice from a divorced mother to her children.
She is an unwilling expert on how the course of your entire life really can turn on whether you’re just pretending to be able to afford the brand-name cereal. And her exegesis on the timing required to produce the perfect slice of buttered toast is both inspired and a fully realized metaphor for life.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays
Mason Jar Press, 2018
In the introductory note to this, her debut collection, author Tyrese Coleman considers the line between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to memoir, and whether any distinction really matters. As she observes, “memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.”
Indeed, how we remember significant events in our lives — whether or not they are precisely accurate — materially affects both our view of the world and our relationships within it. Our perceptions are our own realities, and there is no argument to be made against that truth.
That’s what makes memoir not so very different from fiction. The line blurs, but the truth that the memories carry remains the same.
Each of these pieces has appeared elsewhere in some form; the collective force of putting them together results in a gut punch. Coursing through these stories of abuse and neglect, racism, anger, guilt, and regret, is also acceptance, forgiveness — of self and others — and the love that survives somehow, forged in the connective tissue of family.
Coleman’s writing is captivating in its variety, with form, voice, and tone varying widely from piece to piece, each capturing a glimpse of a life from different angles and focal points, collectively forming a nuanced portrait.
That portrait is of a talented girl and woman pulling herself out of family chaos, of overcoming the damage inflicted when those who are supposed to protect you betray you in ways both incidental and profound. Or at the very least are never able to grow up enough to realize they are supposed to be the responsible ones.
“Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results” is perhaps the most sweeping of the pieces, heartbreaking in its clear-eyed view of the forces that brought Coleman into being and that carry on through her.
Of her twin sons, one is darker than the rest of the family, and she sees already what a difference that will mean to him — how the doctor is impatient with him but gentle with his brother, how uneven is the attention paid by strangers. “One day . . . he will understand the luxury of his brother’s, his mother’s, his father’s light skin, and feel the lack of it sting his own.”
Coleman’s mother and grandmother are central figures throughout: infuriating women, self-absorbed, absent even when physically present, forceful in their wrong-headedness — and yet, theirs is a survivor’s strength that is passed down. “In the back room of her grandmother’s house, T learned how to escape,” she says in “How to Mourn”. That escape, as every writer knows, was through reading.
And perhaps through writing as well — the catharsis of working out on the page what isn’t possible to work out elsewhere. At any rate, the escape is such that Coleman dedicates this debut memoir, “To my family, especially my grandmother, whose smile I will always remember.”
Fiction writers try to take universal experience and shape it into specific actions and feelings from authentic characters. In his latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, author Philip Cioffari accomplishes this task in spades.
On the surface, If Anyone Asks is the story of one night in the life of Joey “Hunt” Hunter. It’s a big night for him—both his 18th birthday and prom night at his high school. Self-conscious and unsure, he worries about impressing his prom date, the love of his life, Debby Ann. What he doesn’t realize—or maybe he does—is that he can’t impress her because her heart belongs to Sal, head of a local gang called the Brandos.
After the fiasco of the prom and rejection from Debby Ann, Hunt embarks on an exploration of bars and eateries in the Bronx, hoping to still wring some magic out of the night. Accompanying him is his friend, Johnnie Jay, a boy who, unlike Hunt, can lose himself in the moment and occasionally experience contentment. Also with them are Hunt’s memories of his little brother, Toby, who was killed in an accident for which Hunt blames himself.
As Hunt moves through the night, the universality of his experiences builds. With Debby Ann, he longs for something that is real but that he can’t have. At the prom and at several of the bars he sees a flutter of light that surrounds a girl in a blue dress who disappears into the crowd before he can get close to her. Now he’s plagued with a longing for what may not be real or defined, but he still can’t have it. Through everything he feels like something is missing, something is right beyond his reach.
In contrast to Hunt is another friend, Augie, a street-wise 10-year-old who seems to have already seen it all in his short life and accepts everything for what it is. He never seems to be waiting for something or expecting anything.
In addition to longing, Hunt is faced with fear, again both certain and vague. Friends tell him that Sal, who’s also known as the Butcher, is out to get him because of his attention to Debby Ann. Since he’s seen Sal and the Brandos out on the streets since the prom, he knows he’s likely doomed. But there’s a larger threat sweeping through the streets that night. Rumors are circulating that the Golden Guineas, the most feared gang in the Bronx, are coming to start a gang war. No one knows exactly if they will come or when, just probably sometime before dawn.
More than once during this long night, Hunt is reminded of Toby. Between bar visits, he presses Johnnie Jay to go with him to Toby’s grave. Staring at Toby’s tombstone, Hunt again says the accident was his fault, but Johnnie Jay contradicts him. “Do you ever think that maybe this was pre-ordained?” he asks, raising universal questions of destiny and free will. “Maybe it’s part of the plan. Each of us is given our own special pain to carry.”
Eventually Hunt is faced with challenges that demand courage he isn’t sure he has. In a classic coming-of-age experience, he has to look within himself to find out. And by his side is the ever-unflappable Augie.
If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues is not a long novel, yet it feels rich and full. Its pages are packed with action, yearning, fear, and as the title says, heartbreak, all squeezed into one teenager’s efforts to get through one night in his life. There are also insights, questions, and discoveries, and the spark that makes it all worthwhile—hope.
This compelling memoir spans the author’s childhood and young adult years. Most of the story takes place in India and touches on the cut-throat competition among students to enter preferred schools that eventually lead to a university education. The author delves into the pressure that his parents exerted on him to get the grades as a child to enter into one of these schools.
In one Droplet, or chapter, Mr. Nair describes how his father wakes him up at 4:30 am every weekday when he is still in a non-preferred public school to study before getting ready for school. Unfortunately, the author isn’t as keen as his father about school and rebels against him in several instances.
While in his university, Mr. Nair’s troubles continue when senior students haze him and his junior classmates; these incidents are more serious than hazing in the United States. The author finds himself in dangerous situations on more than one occasion and relies on his ingenuity to escape.
Despite suffering in his native India to reach the preferred schools and eventually a university, Mr. Nair maintains his sense of humor throughout the memoir. There are moments of lightheartedness among his classmates and him even though the pressure that the parents put on their children to perform in school is pervasive. In another Droplet, Mr. Nair and his peers do battle with wads of paper, which they hurl at each other with rubber bands when adult supervision is somewhat relaxed in their school. This battle is a release from the constant pressure to get the necessary grades, and is a bonding experience with his classmates.
The style of writing is engaging because the author addresses the reader directly throughout the story, thereby creating an intimacy with the reader that other authors don’t achieve. In the Droplet that explains the hazing by his college senior colleagues, Mr. Nair begins, “Previous chapters I have traced a little about my college days and how seniors played the part. I will offer you a glimpse of our college days here.” This “introduction” serves to entice the reader to continue on with the Droplet and empathize with the author about his experiences.
Droplets is a quick read but offers valuable insights into life. The author rebels against his parents, but as an adult living abroad he comes to be very fond of them. His parents, in turn, are angry when Mr. Nair rebels against them, but as elderly parents they remind the author with humor about those times. These experiences point to the intense relationship between parents and their children, and how it evolves over time.
Droplets by Ajay Nair is available on Amazon and Black Rose Writing’s website, among other outlets.
The Five Wishes of Mr. Murray McBride by Joe Siple is a heart-warming story about a former Chicago Cubs player, Murray McBride, a hundred-year-old man who has recently lost his wife. With few friends and only a grandson as family, the old timer has lost the will to live until he meets the fragile Jason Cashman, a ten-year-old struggling with a failing heart.
The presentation of Murray grabs the reader from the start. The lonely man visits his internist, who understands Murray’s predicament and suggests he visit the hospital to comfort a sick young boy. This boy turns out to be Jason. Murray has a medical condition, too. He must faithfully take his medicine to prevent fluid from entering his lungs and a certain death. He even contemplates not taking his pill before he meets Jason.
The two characters bond immediately, and when Murray finds a list of five wishes that Jason desires before the child dies, the former baseball star is determined to help Jason accomplish his wishes.
The rest of the story chronicles the adventures of Murray and Jason as they seek to fulfill Jason’s wishes. It isn’t until the end that Murray’s five wishes become apparent.
This novel displays the importance of having something to live for. Without wishes and Jason, Murray seems aimless and hopeless, even to the point of committing suicide by not taking his pill. As Jason and Murray’s bond becomes stronger, Murray learns to be thankful for what he has, namely a remaining relative in Chance, his grandson, and a long life lived to the fullest. Yes, the old man has regrets, but in the course of his relationship with Jason, he learns to forgive himself for his mistakes.
Congratulations to Joe Siple on a well-thought-out and touching novel. It has won many awards and is available on Black Rose Writing’s website, among other outlets including Amazon.
Recently I got an ad from The New York Review of Books featuring “headstrong women” paraphernalia in their Readers Catalog (pillow covers, tea sets, necklaces, that kind of thing). They meant “headstrong women” of literature such as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein—women who took their lives into their own hands, I suppose.
Because I had just finished Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, that email got me thinking about “headstrong” female protagonists. I can’t really say that Marjorie is headstrong. In the end she turns out to be quite conventional, at least externally, ultimately the poignant and ephemeral embodiment of a young man’s fantasy.
What on earth does headstrong mean anyway?
Still, Marjorie is in many ways a woman with a mind of her own, or at least a mind we got to see in depth in the novel. Does that make her “headstrong”? Perhaps what people call “headstrong” in women is a quality simply known as independence, or integrity, in men. In women such qualities often take on a more pejorative tone, connoting stubbornness and defiance. This is a connotation that only subtle subversives (aka readers of the New York Review) would sardonically regard as a virtue worth posting on, say, a tea set.
I prefer to think of “headstrong” as meaning memorably and complicatedly independent–at least if we are going to glorify it. Using this definition, one would hope that all protagonists of any gender, particularly any worth writing about, however, would be headstrong.
Definitions aside Marjorie is indeed headstrong, i.e., a memorably strong and complex woman, to the point that when I closed the book I started thinking about other headstrong female protagonists. Many of these women are also eponymous: Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre. Another favorite of mine, not eponymous but equally headstrong, is Becky Sharp In Vanity Fair. I even wrote one of my college application essays about her.
Who is your favorite “headstrong woman” in literature?
All this made me curious if other readers had favorites among the “headstrong” women of literature. Or, more to the point, if they had favorite female protagonists memorable for their fierce independence, passion, and dedication.
If you have a favorite, please share her name with me and explain why you think she’s “headstrong,” You can reach me via the comments section below, the contact form on my website, my Twitter account (@terraziporyn), or the Late Last Night Books Facebook page. I’ll share the results in next month’s blog.
Meanwhile I’m off to order that tea set.
Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times (Cambridge, 2005)
One of the unfortunate casualties of the media’s war on Donald Trump and his ‘fake news’ response is a clear-eyed assessment of the extent to which outside factors influence what newspapers choose to print or not print. As a case in point, consider Laurel Leff’s thorough analysis of the New York Times coverage (or lack thereof) of the Nazi’s murderous campaign against the Jews of Europe. Leff exposes the Times’ intentional downplaying of what was happening out of a fear of being criticized for playing favorites due to the fact that the Times’ owner and publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was Jewish.
Sulzberger was a proponent of the idea that Judaism was a religion and not the cornerstone of a people, a nation. He was opposed to Zionism, the movement that sought to re-populate the land where Jews had once lived as a separate nation, and he was opposed to any references in the Times that might be seen as special pleading for the Jews of Europe. Thus, an editorial about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto did not mention those murdered were Jews.
Leff catalogs in news story by story and news bureau by news bureau the extent to which the Times either did not report on events, downplayed the extent to which Jews were the target of Germany’s policies, or buried references to Jews on the inside pages or at the bottom of stories.
An argument has been made that the Times coverage can be explained in part due to the fact that the world had never seen the like of Hitler’s war on the Jewish people. Yet, the policy of mass extermination was only implemented after a decade-long campaign that included policies targeting Jews specifically. The Times’ reporters had plenty of opportunity to get the story––events such as Kristallnacht––when mobs were encouraged to attack Jews and Jewish businesses, or the ad hoc exterminations carried out by a special branch of the German army called the Einsatzgruppen which traveled across German occupied Eastern Europe lining Jews up next to pits and mowing them down. The facts were known, but the Times elected to minimize their significance.
A second criticism, offered in a review published in the Times own book review section, implied that lives would not have been saved had the Times been more forthcoming about the extent of the problem. Does that mean a newspaper should not report a murder or horrible plane accident since it’s too late to save the victims? Of course not. Whether lives would have been saved had the Times’ reporting been more balanced is not the point. They deliberately withheld information the public deserved to know.
Sulzberger found various reasons to justify the Times’ failure to report the extent of the Nazi’s singling out the Jewish people for extermination. He along with the Roosevelt administration believed calling attention to what we today called the Holocaust would dampen the enthusiasm of the American people for fighting the war. Although Sulzberger did work to rescue a few members of his own family, he rejected involvement in large-scale attempts to save Jews as Jews.
What comes through in Leff’s analysis of the Times bureaus was how a policy from the top gets implemented in the hiring and management of reporters, in the handling of reports submitted by bureau reporters, and in decisions about where stories are placed in the paper.
The New York Times has been for more than a century the leading newspaper in the country––the paper looked to by millions as the source of “all the news that’s fit to print.” Leff’s history takes the lid off and shows us how newspapers are not unlike other social institutions. Lacking sufficient oversight they can become unbalanced, biased and swayed by self-interest. Fear that being more vocal about the plight of the Jews would affect revenue was clearly a concern. Leff demonstrates that newspapers can claim they practice objective journalism while violating the precepts of that ethnic on a daily basis. Readers beware.
HAIL MARY, which will be published on May 7, 2020 by Black Rose Writing, is the sequel to EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS by Patti Liszkay. This entertaining novel is a romantic comedy set in present-day Philadelphia.
The colorful characters are a bona fide mixture of what makes up the population in this city. Silvio, the blue-collar plumber from Northeast Philly, Darren, a white-collar real estate agent living in the fancy suburb of New Conshohocken, and Angelo, a questionable, foul-mouthed business owner, are a sample. Liszkay does her native city justice through these characters’ portrayal because they match the city’s grit, new money, bluntness, and corruption. They mirror the blue-collar grit and bluntness in the famous movie, Rocky, but also the new wave of professionals living in the city and its suburbs these days. And, of course, every major city has its share of corruption.
The reader doesn’t have to be from Philadelphia or know extensively about the city to enjoy Liszkay’s writing. Her humor and entertaining plotting make the story unique. Her transitions from one point of view to another are smooth, and the suspense of what will happen to the main character, Trysta, an attractive mother of four, remains until the end. The vocabulary is varied and impressive, too. Secondary characters aside from the ones already mentioned such as Mr. Tilley, the compassionate lawyer representing Silvio’s custody battle, Sally, Silvio’s loyal girlfriend, and Dr. Cavanni, Trysta’s therapist, are nice additions.
The reader is advised to read the first novel, EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS, to understand the beginning of HAIL MARY. It would be difficult to pick up the second novel and understand the characters and plot straight off. Both novels are quick reads, though, and HAIL MARY gives a satisfying end to the duo.
Perhaps, like me, you’re one of those people who, finding yourself in a crowd, looks around and wonders at the individual lives of each of the people surrounding you. The tattooed barista with half-shaved/half-purple hair, the guy with the sweat-stained underarms staring into the lingerie store display, the middle-aged business man shouting into his phone as though this were still 2005.
Hard as it is to imagine, all of these people have their own history, their own movie in which they star, their own universe in which they are the omnipotent point of view.
Well, Nathan Leslie imagines it. In Hurry Up and Relax—Leslie’s tenth book, coming out in October, the winner of the Washington Writers Publishing House 2019 Fiction Award—his darkly comedic eye takes in the refugees from the real estate bubble, the hostages of the gig economy, the Facebook stalkers, the Internet gamers trapped on the couch in permanent twilight.
His characters are over-educated and under-performing, ill-prepared to participate in real life. They are able to text at blinding speed but incapable of holding a job or fixing a leaky faucet. Leslie finds them in their hidden warrens and offers up their stories in closely observed detail.
In the title story, Paulie, tightly wound but hoping to take some vacay so he can hurry up and relax, is also “underwater. He bought at the height of the market, the bubbliest part of the bubble. He can never sell, not until it’s paid off twenty-three years from now.” It’s called a mortgage—death pledge—for a reason.
In “Drop”, the miserable narrator ticks off the days of living in a motel after he and his wife lose their house, after he loses his job—but at least they are out from under their mortgage. Stuffing envelopes at one cent per, he longs to take back the days of excess, the $680 dinner out just because they could. Now their friends (her friends) are the other motel residents, similar victims of the downturn: “She was a lawyer a few years back. He was an accountant. Now they do spot temp work, when they can get it.”
There’s a similar cast of characters in “Lithing Blooker Cracken” (doesn’t every horny busker con man make up his own language?), a small society of folks dumpster diving for their meals, anchored by Gus, the trust-fund guy who eats from the garbage out of a sense of guilt.
The narrator of “Rule the Day” spends evenings hanging out with his kickball buddies, nights playing Demon Warrior, and days sleeping, occasionally interrupted by his three girlfriends with whom he rarely has the energy to have sex. “Gretchen’s throaty voice is intertwining with Candi’s quasi-squeak like some kind of estrogen-y DNA staircase—all bad news for me.”
In spite of it all, many of Leslie’s characters still find a bit of poetry in themselves. The tollbooth attendant of “Exact Change” considers the folks who roll through his lane. Of one driver’s car he notes, “The dashboard is sticky with dust and residue. Even the change he hands me is grimy, as if a volcano spewed ash inside his car . . . I swear, filth seems to chuff off in the wind as he drives off.” Of the woman who inquires after his state of salvation, he says, “She has one of those perfect moral smiles, as if she was blessed by Jesus himself yesterday morning.”
Two of these stories feature Internet stalkers, and the creepiest in the collection is “K”, in which a lonely man constructs an elaborate fantasy relationship with a young woman who has simply been unlucky enough to wait on him at the pet store where she works. It’s unsettling because it’s a bit too realistic in its portrayal; this is how young women end up getting murdered.
Oddly, the two most hopeful stories for me are ones that depict fathers with their daughters—“The Collector” and, yes, “Shit Flower”—for the simple reason that both men are working to do the best job they can for their children. In the world of Leslie’s ill-equipped characters, that practically makes them superheroes.
Toward the end of Setting the Family Free by Eric D. Goodman, one of the main characters thinks about what has to be done to “end this bloody twenty hours, thereby closing the darkest ordeal of his life,” but he can’t bring himself to do it. The fact that he is so conflicted is indicative of the many opposing threads that Goodman weaves together to create suspense and compassion in this tale of the escape of dozens of exotic animals from a homemade zoo in Chillicothe, Ohio. It’s a compelling story told by a skillful, adventurous writer.
The novel opens with a series of comments about animals from famous people as well as fictional characters who play leading roles in the story that’s about to unfold. Following the comments is a transcript of the local evening news broadcast in Chillicothe, so right away the reader knows that this story isn’t going to be told like most other novels. A traditional narrative doesn’t appear until the third chapter, but by that time the reader has a sense of the tone and scope of the story. By using this unusual technique in various parts of the novel, Goodman shows the events happening in a larger context without spending too much time on long discussions or back stories.
He also shows his penchant for unusual storytelling by including several chapters from the point of view of the animals who have escaped. The unexpected narrator isn’t new for Goodman—he told his novel Womb: A Novel in Utero from the point of view of an unborn fetus—and he excels at making the animals in this novel believable and sometimes sympathetic. Being immersed in the thoughts of a lion or a bear is fascinating.
But people are the ones who make the novel most engaging, especially Sammy Johnson, the owner of the exotic-animal zoo. When the sheriff and his deputies arrive at the Johnson home after being summoned by neighbors, they discover Sammy’s body in the animal warehouse, largely eaten by the animals. Many of the animals are gone, and the ones that remain can’t be contained because the sides of the cages have been cut. The question that provides the driving force of the story is why? Why did Sammy let the animals loose? If the animals loved Sammy as much as his wife says they did, why did they eat him?
Like a good breadcrumb trail, Goodman drops possible answers along the way, but often the answers only lead to more questions. And meanwhile the animals are roaming about, looking for food, and finding people to be the easiest source of meat. Goodman doesn’t shy away from the horror of facing a hungry lion, tiger, or bear, which keeps the tension taut from page to page. At times it’s the reality of an attack: “I knew I was dead . . . . but my husband kept yelling for me to resist . . . . So I did—I started cramming my fingers into its nose and eyes and beating its face.”
And other times it’s the anticipation: “He knows we’re here . . . . He could smell us long before we could see him. And he can hear us whispering. The idea isn’t to sneak up on him. It’s to make sure he doesn’t see us as a threat.”
Throughout the 20-hour search, relationships among the characters develop and change, some on the spot and some from the past as revealed by comments and remembrances. At one point, Sammy’s wife, Marielle, seems more distraught about the murdered animals than her dead husband, although she and Sammy were married for nearly 30 years. Relationships among the men hunting and killing the escaped animals also change, as must be the case among comrades battling intense danger.
In several places the hunt is compared to war, which plays a role in the story. Sammy spent two years in the Vietnam War, causing some people to speculate he was never the same after that and his experience may have affected his decisions at the end of his life. Maybe Setting the Family Free is really about war and the things it causes veterans to do even after they come home. Maybe it’s about learning to kill. When the deputy sheriff first sees the two tigers that killed a neighbor’s horses, he doesn’t shoot them. Later, he wonders why he didn’t.
Maybe it’s about choosing the right side in times of conflict. The animals didn’t ask to be let loose. But once they were free, they needed to eat, so they did it in the only way they knew how. Maybe it’s about the risks of being different. Nobody except Sammy had an exotic zoo that large.
Maybe it’s about all of the above, or maybe it’s just a good story about some dangerous animals that got loose, the people who loved them, and the people who hunted them down. I advise you to read it for yourself and see what you think. No doubt it will broaden your perspective on the meaning of family, freedom, and fear.
We are in the heart of summer, which has always been prime reading time. What else is a lazy summer day made for, if not lounging with a good book, perhaps in between a splash in the pool and a quick nap? Here are two recent reads that I’m recommending you tuck into your beach bag: a debut essay collection and a thriller with heart and compelling characters. They could not be more different from each other, and I found them both compulsively readable.
BE WITH ME ALWAYS: ESSAYS
Randon Billings Noble
University of Nebraska Press
The cover of this debut collection of essays is arresting: it features an image of a heart that’s constructed of a lovely combination of deep red embroidery and beading. But it’s not the stylized heart of a Valentine; it’s a human heart, much as you’d find if you cut open your chest, complete with part of the aorta and pulmonary artery.
That image helps to convey some of the author’s sensibility, which is that of a clear-eyed pragmatist wrestling with a romantic. In “A Pill to Cure Love,” author Randon Billings Noble dissects the chemical composition of Tylenol—vinegar, ammonia, and tar—to consider whether that will do the trick. She tracks the end of a serious affair against the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
In “Assemblage,” she discusses the story of Frankenstein along side the story of her pregnancy with twins, and interjects the origins of selected words, such as incarnate. She notes crisply, “There’s always a little carnage in creation.”
Noble plays with words and their meanings throughout her essays, fascinated by the evolution in meaning, use, and nuance. In “Widow Fantasies,” we learn that “[t]he Russian word for solitude means ‘being with everybody’”, and that fantasy is from the Greek meaning literally “a making visible.” The essay “Camouflet” wends its way through a discussion of being en flanant—strolling anonymously through city streets, aimless but observant—to explaining this French slang term, the origin of camouflage, as meaning “a whiff of smoke in the face.”
Literature also plays a significant role in Noble’s essays. In “Striking,” she counts off twenty observations of herself in relation to Wuthering Heights, noting, “There are twenty matches in a book,” and the reader can practically hear her striking each one and letting it burn down. In “69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise,” she uses connections among Sherlock Holmes, word origins, and her own experience to stitch together ways of finding and revealing truth.
As to revealing truths, she does not shy away from sharing raw and sometimes surprising stories. I believe that many expectant mothers feel some level of dread at what is transpiring and yet to come, but are reluctant—for obvious reasons—to share those thoughts. Here, Noble tells us, “the weight of what I am carrying presses me down and down . . . I fear that they will eat me up. I fear that my life is already over.” And in the era of #MeToo, Noble, rather than having an ugly tale to tell of being wrestled into submission, confesses to regretting ducking out of the embrace of a high school boy who had plans for her on a pool table.
Essays are the non-fiction equivalent of short stories, which may explain their current popularity in our time-pressed lives. Each essay here stands on its own, so you can enjoy one whenever you have a few moments, but taken together, the collection builds layers of depth and perspective that make the sum greater than the parts. You’ll want these essays to be with you always—at least until you finish reading every one.
E. A. Aymar
Down & Out Books
I’ll admit to feeling a level of concern when I heard that author E. A. Aymar was researching sex trafficking for an upcoming novel. The last thing we need, I thought at the time, is another book that lovingly details the torture and sexual abuse of women, seemingly inviting the reader to enjoy the experience along with the perpetrator. (This is exactly the reason I stopped watching Criminal Minds around Season 3.)
Thus, I’m relieved to say that Aymar has done an admirable job of avoiding that trap with The Unrepentant, handling a difficult subject with sensitivity while delivering a taut, character-driven thriller.
Army vet Mace Peterson is stumbling through the nighttime Baltimore woods after an argument with his lawyer ex-wife, Eve, when he comes upon 18-year-old Charlotte Reyes, bound at the wrists and being pulled out of the trunk of a car by two men, one carrying an ax. After Mace crashes in to break up the impending murder, Charlotte takes the lead in getting the two of them out of the immediate jam.
Thus begins a classic cat and mouse chase story, with the good guys running and the bad guys forever closing in, mixed in with a solid revenge tale worthy of any of the Death Wish movies. The abuse that Charlotte has suffered at the hands of these men — and those before them — drives her desire for vengeance, and, on the surface at least, leaves her unrepentant.
Mace serves as a contrast to Charlotte; he is haunted by the memory of the one Iraqi he killed, even though his actions saved American lives. He believes that there is something inherently wrong with the use of lethal force.
Charlotte — or Carlota, as she was to her Mexican mother, in her previous, happier life in California — collects a supporting team that includes both Mace and Eve, who needs to be convinced not to involve the police, and Dory, a woman who has dedicated her life to helping victims of abuse, particularly sex trafficking.
On the side of the bad guys, there are the four who were holding Charlotte chained in a Baltimore basement — one a cop who was among the three taking nightly turns raping her — the two assigned to eliminate her when she started fighting back, and the one who employs them all, Barnes, whose brutality is as dispassionate as it is boundless.
I read this entire novel in one long sitting. The chapters are short, sometimes less than a page, to shift among the different characters and locales. Aymar’s pacing alternates between adrenaline-pumping chase and fight scenes, and quieter moments that give the reader time to take a breath, and to give the characters time to develop. Particularly effective is having Charlotte tell her own story to Mace, Eve, and Dory, and she is matter-of-fact in her account.
Well-selected details add depth to the story. For example, we learn that both Charlotte and Eve’s mothers worked in libraries, and both women grew up knowing the love of a committed parent. It helps to underscore the vagaries of fate and simple bad luck that place Charlotte in Barnes’ path; there but for the grace of God . . .
Given the current headlines about wealthy sex traffickers being protected by a legal system that dismisses or ignores the victims, Unrepentant helps to paint an unflinching portrait of what many continue to think of as a victimless crime. Pretty Woman this is not.
Aymar has provided a compelling hero in Charlotte, a young woman who, through no fault of her own, has everything taken from her. She makes us wonder the extent that we — in her place — would find ourselves equally unrepentant.
We recently exhibited our books at the Lancaster Community Library in Kilmarnock, VA, and I traded books with other vendors there. As I usually do, I signed my book to Abbot Lee Granoff, author of Crowns of Gold with the line, “Enjoy the adventure.” Later, I read the note he wrote in signing his book to me. “Enjoy the adventure.” Great minds, etc. I’ll print a review of his book later.
I also traded books with Ann Eichenmuller, whose book, Kind Lies, features a woman who lives alone on a sailboat at a marina on the Rappahannock River. It is a mystery. The book I gave her was my psychological suspense novel called The Two-Sided Set-Up, in which my protagonist lives alone on a trawler at a marina on the Rappahannock.
Kind Lies is another in Ann’s Lies mystery series. She also writes award-winning marine articles which have appeared in All at Sea, Chesapeake Style, and Chesapeake Bay Magazine, earning her three consecutive Boating Writers International Awards. I found her book engaging and compelling, especially since I, too, once lived on a boat and am familiar with the creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake.
In Kind Lies, the protagonist, Sandra Beck, receives a disturbing phone call from a former colleague asking for help. Sandra travels to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to find out what’s going on. She meets the husband and the three young children and learns that the woman she came to help, Elizabeth Bryson, is lost and missing after a boating disaster.
Sandi is driven by guilt to find out what happened and realizes she has fallen in love with Elizabeth’s husband Michael. As she learns about Elizabeth’s life, she is drawn into a web of lies that erode her belief in the woman she once knew. Each new clue brings her closer to a truth that threatens the grieving family and the man she loves.
The book is a page-turner that will carry you along with Sandi Beck on to an explosive finale.
Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko opens with this sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” While Lee’s emphasis in the novel is aimed squarely on the “us” in that sentence, I was captivated by the history she explores, largely because my knowledge of it was sorely lacking.
Pachinko begins in Yeongdo, Korea, in 1910, the year the country was annexed by the Empire of Japan after years of war and intimidation. During the occupation that followed, Japan took over Korea’s labor and land and waged war on its culture. Japanese families were given land in Korea, where they chopped down trees by the millions and planted non-native species. Korean workers were forced to work in Japan and its other colonies.
Meanwhile, after seizing treasures of Korean art history and culture, the Japanese government used them to promote itself as a civilizing and modern force. Consequently, textbooks, museums, and other icons of learning spread the idea of Korea as backwards and primitive compared with Japan, a view of the Korean people that became rooted among Japanese and even among some Koreans.
In 1939, Koreans were pressured by Japanese authorities to change their names to Japanese names. Since people without Japanese names were not recognized by the colonial bureaucracy, more than 80 percent of all Koreans complied with the order.
The plight of the Korean people, particularly the common people, during the occupation, as well as World War II, the Cold War, and the Korean War, inspired Lee to write Pachinko. The novel follows four generations of the same family through the hardships, heartaches, discrimination, and occasional joys of living in Korea and Japan from 1910 until 1989. In an interview included with the paperback edition, Lee says that history often fails to represent everyone because poor and middle-class men and almost all women usually leave no written evidence of their lives. To research Pachinko, she interviewed many Korean-Japanese to gather their oral histories.
As I read about Lee’s fictional characters, all of whom are interesting and endearing, I had more questions about the historical events that shaped their lives. I knew about the dividing of Korea between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II, but I wondered why Japan wasn’t divided as well. Perusing several websites taught me that the Soviet Union didn’t declare war on Japan until the final weeks of the conflict, whereas the United States had done most of the fighting there. Also, U.S. President Harry Truman thought that Japan would be easier to administer if the United States was the only occupying power.
The Soviets did receive some parts of the Japanese Empire, however. They were given the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island, which Japan had taken from the Russians in 1905.
Toward the end of Pachinko, one of the characters questions why German-Americans weren’t placed in internment camps in the United States during World War II as the Japanese-Americans were. Since her companion doesn’t give her an answer, I was back to the internet to find out. I learned that German-Americans were interned on an individual basis rather than as a group. Although the War Department considered removing ethnic Germans and ethnic Italians from the east and west coasts, it didn’t follow through, mainly because of the numbers of people involved. According to Wikipedia, a total of 11,507 people of German ancestry were interned during the war, compared with 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese-Americans held in internment camps.
I would say that Lee reached and exceeded her goal of creating Pachinko to bring attention to the ways common people lived through this time of catastrophe, including wars, displacements, changing ideas, and other historic events. Her intimate revelations of her characters’ lives bring a reality to those events that the usual broad descriptions can’t. And she sparked a curiosity in me, for which I am grateful.
These days many of us are glued to the news as conflicts near and far are reported with up to the minute details. Can you imagine then how it must have felt to residents of Dubno in Soviet occupied Poland in June 1941 to hear rumors that Germany was about to invade? Jewish families in particular had few if any choices to assure their survival. In one family a young man decided to ride his bicycle to a near-by town to learn what he could. For Wolf Kogul that was the beginning of years struggling to survive war, tragic loss and future guilt.
Each story of that time adds concrete knowledge of those terrible years, bringing the truth of specificity that history books can only generalize about. How each story is told therefore becomes a test for the author. For many survivors, it means reliving the trauma, remembering details they worked hard to forget. For the children of survivors other obstacles arise. How to tell the story with the authenticity it requires and yet make it accessible.
Morey Kogul passed that test in Running Breathless (2018). He has made his father’s story authentic backed by documentation and yet accessible by the unique approach of converting his father’s taped recollections into a historical novel. Here is my interview with Kogul about the book.
PGP: Your decision to write your father’s story as a first person “novel” represents a novel approach to telling a Holocaust/WW II story. How did you come to that decision?
MK: I wanted the reader to feel as though my father was relaying his experience personally to him/her. Re-telling my father’s memoir in first person removes the barrier of a third party voice and keeps the connection between my father and the reader close. This also creates the added effect of allowing the reader to visualize my father’s experience as he relives it—making the reader feel as though s/he is alongside him through his journey.
PGP: Your “novel” approach makes the story accessible to readers who might not pick up a typical narrative account. How has Running Breathless been received by readers?
MK: Extremely well. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Readers enjoy the fast pace and intensity of the story as well as the personal connection they feel with my father.
PGP: How long did it take you to write Running Breathless and what was the most difficult part of the project?
MK: I wrote the memoir from August – December 2016, but collected my father’s story nearly 26 years ago. Over the years, I experimented with writing various sections of the book, but ultimately committed to writing the book in August 2016.
Emotionally, the most difficult part of the project was listening to my father unburden guilt and pain that he suppressed for decades. As for the literary challenge, I grappled with telling the story first or third person, and ultimately took the riskier option to give the reader a more authentic experience.
PGP: You make a point of telling readers you did extensive research to back up the notes you got from your father. What was the motivation behind this research effort?
MK: The research serves several uses. First, corroborating my father’s account with the historical record further validates his testimony; I am proud that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reviewed my father’s story and included the book as part of their reference library. Second, selectively footnoted research adds literary gravity to the story; a reference to the devastation that followed my father’s escape from a particular town demonstrates how perilously close he came to perishing in the war. Finally, the references prompt further research and education. Readers have informed me that they were unaware of some of the facts and explored the Eastern Front further.
PGP: One reason your father’s story is so unique is that it takes place on the less covered eastern front of the war. What obstacles did you encounter researching the events related to that side of the conflict?
MK: Thankfully, Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have extensive collections that made this research manageable. While not nearly as voluminous as Western Front or Pacific Theater accounts, I felt I was able to identify enough evidence to support my father’s story.
PGP: One of the strengths of your book is your clean writing style. Has the success of Running Breathless inspired you to further writing projects?
MK: I appreciate the compliment. I truly enjoyed the process of writing this book: identifying someone with a compelling true life story; interview and research the subject; and then write a memoir in first person. I would gladly write another book that “gives voice to the voiceless.”
Writing alternative history offers an author extra challenges beyond the normal ones presented by any other kind of historical fiction. The accepted history has to be well known in order for the reader to understand what is different and to be able to appreciate the author’s exploration of that alternative. An example of a popular alternative history in the U.S. is to imagine the results if the South had won the Civil War. Even so, the author must be a diligent researcher and make clear and crucial choices about which facts remain the same and which are turned on their heads.
Zach Powers, whose debut novel, First Cosmic Velocity, is out from G. P. Putnam this August, meets these challenges head-on. Powers’ topic is the Soviet space program of the 1950s and ‘60s, a subject that older readers will remember with painful clarity as a blow to American pride when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 and beat us into space. Later, Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned orbit of the earth in 1961, making him a worldwide phenomenon and catching the U.S. flat-footed once again.
In Powers’ alternative history, the Soviets still beat us into space, sending multiple manned missions up. The problem, for the program and the cosmonauts, is that no one knows how to bring them back down again.
The story shifts between two time periods: the story’s present day, in 1964, and 1950 in Ukraine, during a brutal, widespread drought and famine. Powers reveals the bones of his story in small steps, starting with an inspired opening: “Nadya had been the twin who was supposed to die. But she lived, and it was her sister, the other Nadya, who’d departed.”
This Nadya is watching the launch of the latest spacecraft along with the Chief Designer, the man responsible for the design of the Vostok capsule, the one that is incapable of surviving re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
In the capsule is Leonid; in fact, he is one of two Leonids. The other Leonid is secreted in a bunker in the same complex, his presence—indeed his very existence—known only to a small handful of people. To the rest of the space program and the CCCP at large, including Premier Kruschev, there is only one Leonid, as to them there was and is only one Nadya.
Yes, the Soviet engineering answer to a persistently non-performing heat shield is: twins. One trains for spaceflight, the other trains to be the gracious, charming hero to the Soviet people upon their “return” from space.
The plan certainly has limitations. Besides demanding extensive and strenuous secrecy measures and lots of set-dressing—for example, the need to pre-position a blackened, battered re-entry capsule that the unwitting recovery team drives out to collect, along with its triumphant cosmonaut—it’s impossible to manage all the variables, such as when the space-trained Nadya breaks her leg two days before the first launch, and the charm-schooled Nadya is pressed into service to take her place in the capsule.
Of the more dangerous of those variables is Ignatius, the professional propagandist assigned to the space program who materializes at inconvenient times and is clearly putting two and two together. The question is what she will do with the information once she has it.
The emotional heart of the story is laid out in the flashbacks to 1950 in Bohdan, Ukraine where the two Leonids (we never learn their given names) are being raised by their stern but devoted grandmother, who tells them the heroic stories of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, for whom their tiny, failing village is named.
As the famine worsens, Russian soldiers arrive by train to commandeer everything valuable or edible; that is when an officer takes note of the twins. It is at the point that there is truly nothing edible left to be scavenged that the next train arrives, carrying the father of the Soviet space program, Konstantin Tsiolkovski (placed here by the magic of alternative history, since he died in 1935), to take the twins for the greater glory of the Motherland.
None of the main characters here are evil or monstrous, merely trapped into the roles they’ve been assigned. In fact, most of them, in their own way, are deeply humane. The Chief Designer in particular, already bearing ugly scars from the gulag, strains under the weight of his guilt even as he continues to add to it.
Woven into the story are some magical elements that add to its other-worldly feel, such as “a possibly immortal dog,” as Powers recently noted in a discussion about the book, and a voice from space from someone who could not conceivably be there.
This is an eloquent and deeply felt narrative, the power of which builds steadily as the story unfolds. Powers’ first book, a short story collection called Gravity Changes, was the winner of the BOA Short Fiction prize, and was included in The Washington Post’s 2017 “A Summer Book List Like No Other.” Expect First Cosmic Velocity to garner significant attention of its own.