Paula Fox died on March first, although I didn’t know it. I happened to be reading Desperate Characters at the time. I didn’t know who the author was or why I was reading Desperate Characters. My best guess was that a Goodreads friend had recommended the book and I’d downloaded it, with so many others, to my Kindle. Because Kindle doesn’t give copyright or original publication dates for books – an unforgivable sin, to my mind – I didn’t even know whether Desperate Characters was an older book or a recent one set in the sixties. What I did know, or realized as I got into the book, was the fact that I was reading not just good but great fiction. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
At first read, you might think Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a delightful story with endearing, charming characters—which it is. But look a little closer, and you’ll find it’s also a probing story picking at deep layers of family love and resentment. Just below the characters’ zest for life lie feelings of aloneness and abandonment. Once those feelings are laid bare, can they ever be subdued?
Fling!’s main characters are mother and daughter Bubbles and Feather. Ninety-year-old Bubbles is still full of enthusiasm and looking for laughter wherever she can find it. MacKenzie tells us Bubbles’ motto is fun. “Life was too short; you needed to have a little fun. … Money didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she could have a good time.”
A Review of Hillbilly Elegy
In my last posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.
Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.
That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.
Ever since The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was released in 2014, I’ve heard it described as the story of the relationship between a white girl and the enslaved black girl who is given to her as her personal maid on her eleventh birthday. The novel is that story, but its deeper story is the evolution of the white girl, Sarah Grimké, into not only a leader of the abolitionist movement but also one of the first proponents of women’s rights.
Sarah Grimké was a real person who was born into Charleston aristocracy and grew up there in the years before the U.S. Civil War. Kidd used diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and Sarah’s own writing as well as biographical material to learn the facts of Sarah’s life and many of her desires, struggles, and motivations. But the beauty of this novel comes from the rich inner life that Kidd imagines for Sarah, even as a child.
Last year when the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Bob Dylan, many people responded with the question, Why? Two years earlier when the Nobel Prize committee named Patrick Modiano the recipient of its literature prize, another question was often asked, Who?
Though Modiano had published about thirty works in his native France, he was almost unknown in this country. Only a dozen of his novels had been translated into English, and the publishing house David R. Godine, which had published three of them, sold only about 8,000 copies.
Why do I call Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven a utopian dystopia? Her story echoes the tradition of dystopian novels from 1984 and Brave New World to more recent books like McCarthy’s The Road and Veronica Roth’s Divergent by positing a pandemic that wipes out the vast majority of the earth’s population in a matter of days, but the ending, which I will get to, is more optimistic than most.
I often read two or three novels at once. Reading Percy’s The Moviegoer and Albo’s Hornito, I read a passage and thought I’d picked up one book rather than the other. Both present a young man chasing sex and the meaning of life while also interacting with his elders and friends and working in an office and revisiting his childhood. When I finished both books, I noticed that many passages I’d marked in each could fit either, to some extent. Which left me struck by the similarity of the quest of the protagonists, although really quite different men.
Most fiction fans know about Maxwell Perkins’s role in paring down Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling narratives to shape them into manageable novels. Fewer people are familiar with the massive influence Perkins had on other iconic American fiction writers and on the literary standards of the early 20th century. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the National Book Award winner by A. Scott Berg, tells Max’s story with all the color and style worthy of its subject. Filled with details and personalities, the biography reads like a novel, following the brave exploits of its central character.
Words matter. It would be surprising if I as a writer didn’t believe that to be true, since words are my entire stock in trade. Words have meaning. A shared understanding of the meaning of words is what allows us to communicate and function as a society. Words have shades of meaning, too—nuance—and understanding that nuance allows us all to send and receive exactly the message that’s intended.
There are roughly 130,000 words in the English language. It’s said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, which was not out of the ordinary for an educated man of his time. In comparison, modern Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. As we continue to pare back our words, nuance is lost. Shades of meaning are jettisoned, the subtle distinctions sacrificed, pounded out into the blunt instrument of whatever fits into 140 characters.
Words affect us. We may teach our children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as a lesson in resilience and the mature ability to walk away and elect not to engage, but we also know the power of words to hurt, as well as to heal. Certainly, we expect the leaders of our country, our shared community, to understand that fundamental truth and act accordingly.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the last year, and wildly more so since early November. Because I knew that I would be posting this essay today, I selected a few books to read that seemed to cut to the heart of the things that keep me awake at night.
I have a friend who retains nothing from the way history is usually taught in classes, so she reads historical novels about the periods she wants to learn about. The novels make the history come alive for her so she can remember it.
I understand this. Many years ago, in planning a trip to Haiti. I tried reading nonfiction about Haitian history, but I simply couldn’t retain the salient facts. Then I read a lurid novel called The Black Sun by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott. In the novel, a young American from Boston travels to Haiti as the bloody revolution begins in 1791. The revolution ended in 1804 with the triumph of the black slaves. The major figures of that revolution, especially Henri Christophe, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, are vividly described in the book. Dessalines became the first leader of Haiti after the revolution. The novel described him as a brutal revengeful man and that was the way he ruled. This was confirmed in reading nonfiction about Haiti’s history, where it seemed every succeeding president was more brutal than the last.
We also read The Comedians by Graham Greene, a novel set in Haiti during the regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a brutal dictator of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. The novel was later made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Duvalier’s vicious security police were known as the “Tonton Macoute.”
Take a beautiful sea setting, add a few endearing but complex characters, top it off with serious moral dilemmas, and what do you get? The Light Between Oceans, an excellent debut novel by M.L. Stedman.
Set mostly at a lighthouse on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Australia, The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on the island, visited only once a season by two men who bring them supplies. This isolated existence suits Tom, who believes that if he can get far enough away from people and memories, time will heal the mental and emotional wounds he carries from fighting in World War I, especially the nightmares that remind him of the blood on his hands. He is a meticulous lighthouse keeper, always making sure the light goes on and off at the correct times and recording everything he should in the leather-bound log.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks has everything — love, hate, jealousy, violence, intrigue, battles, and faith. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a retelling of the biblical story of David, though the word “retelling” doesn’t do justice to Brooks’s success in breathing new life into the three-thousand-year-old character many readers think they already know.
David is familiar to us as the man who killed the giant Goliath, united the people of Israel, played the harp, and wrote many of the Psalms. That’s about all I remembered of him when I opened the book. The novel so intrigued me that I’ve since reread the biblical accounts to see how they differ from Brooks’s.
Chanukah Guilt is the title of Rabbi Illene Schneider’s first cozy mystery. The heroine is a female rabbi whose persistence in seeking answers about the supposed suicide of a young woman leads to the discovery of a double murder.
The Chanukah connection is an artificial overlay to the story and other than being “cute” due to the fact that Guilt almost sounds like Gelt, the title has nothing to do with the story.
I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.
I originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the students work as a team to choose the projects for which they’d like to offer a contract. Kudos for their selection of Ellen’s novel.
THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House, 2015, 221 pp.
“What is broken is also beautiful.” This is the lesson taught by kintsugi, a Japanese ceramic art form in which objects are purposely broken and then mended with golden joinery, thereby making them even more beautiful and more valuable.
Novels that pack a punch but still leave the reader feeling uplifted don’t come along very often. Too frequently, novels tend to depict the world we live in as dangerous and dreary or they’re filled with unflappable optimists and do-gooders. Swedish author Fredrik Backman walks the line between those two scenarios perfectly in his first two novels, A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.
I read A Man Called Ove first and loved its main character, a grouchy old man who’s set in his ways and seems to have no tolerance for anyone who can’t understand that his way is not just the right way; it’s the only way.
Ten Great American Political Novels for Trying Times
As the campaign season draws to a close, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. But what about fiction with a strong political theme? Can it help us understand and make sense of the world around us? You bet it can, and I’ve got just the list to prove it.
Whether you’re fed up with politics and need an escape or you just can’t get enough of it, here are ten American political novels worth considering before Inauguration Day. The choices are mine, and I’ll warn you that I’ve left out a few that might seem particularly partisan (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example), as well as the many great foreign political classics (1984, The Trial, War and Peace, to name just a few). Most have been made into movies, but trust me, the books are better.
As a children’s book blogger and mother to a toddler, I’m an equal-opportunity lover of books, from board books to novels, and I’ve learned to largely ignore age recommendations. That’s how I found Catherynne M. Valente in the children’s book section rather than general fiction, and, trust me, she’s not an author to miss, no matter how you find her.
I first encountered Cat Valente’s books through her Fairyland series, novels which are listed for ages 10-14, according to the back cover. I’m 29 right now, by the way. I soon finished reading them all and delightedly reviewed them for my children’s books blog, The Children’s Bookroom, praising her for her ability to frame characters with such heart and personal growth, and to create a world so fantastical and yet so tangible. But I wanted more Valente books. I wondered what else someone with her capabilities would be able to do. Topsy-turvy adult that I am, I went from reading her children’s books to discovering her adult novels.
According to the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 24.8 percent of U.S. murder victims were killed by family members. That’s a nearly a quarter of all murders. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that family violence (including assault, murder, robbery, and sex offenses) accounted for 11 percent of all reported and unreported violence between 1998 and 2002. Although we don’t have statistics for the flip side of family passions, anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the profound role family love and support can play during those times. And also how deep an emotional wound inflicted by a family member can go. Because family relationships are among the most highly charged of any relationships in human experience, families offer the ideal set of characters for a novel’s essential conflict.
On a recent trip to Florida, my husband, some friends, and I took a short boat ride out to an uninhabited barrier island. We hiked out to the beach, and they pulled up a seat while I continued on to hunt shells. I was perhaps a quarter mile away when I decided to take a quick dip to cool off. As I turned to go back to shore, a searing pain burned through my foot. I stumbled out of the water, fell onto the sand, and watched as blood pumped with every heartbeat from the top of my foot. The pain threatened to cause a blackout.
- I can’t put any weight on my foot.
- I have no way to stop the bleeding.
- I am completely alone on this beach.
- I wonder how I can use this in a story.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a perfect example of writer’s brain. For all I knew, I was in the midst of a life-threatening situation with no obvious resolution, but that was no reason to delay imagining the fictional possibilities. I could immediately envision all the ways this could segue into great literature:
So you devoured Elene Ferrante’s tetralogy and now you’re wondering what other international gems are out there—books so good you can’t believe you never heard of them. Well, look no further than Magda Szabó’s The Door. If you like Ferrante, I guarantee you’ll like Szabó.
Magda Szabó, who died in 2007 at age 90, was one of Hungary’s most important 20th century writers, widely read and admired at home but only recently getting the love and attention she deserves worldwide. The Door was published in 1987 but not translated into English until 2005, when it appeared in Britain. Last year, the New York Review Books classics offered it up to American audiences in a new, widely praised translation by Len Rix. We should all be thankful.
I’m shocked when I read lists of favorite novels and see that most, and sometimes all, are American. There may be a leavening of British authors too; that’s something. Still, I think, haven’t you read the Russians or the Germans? You really think Toni Morrison or Jonathan Safran-Foer are better than Tolstoy or Musil? Anglo-Saxon culture is lamentably insular, and American culture is not merely insular but downright provincial these days. The greatest weakness of the writing done by creative writing students—graduates as well as undergraduates—is that it’s so rarely informed by wide reading. And however unfashionable it may be, my remedy is to send them to the canon. Not “back to the canon”, sadly, because most of them aren’t familiar with it in the first place. And you can’t do better than start with a Dead White Male who was also (oh, unpardonable elitism!) an aristocrat, Count Leo Tolstoy.
READING MY WAY THROUGH MURIEL SPARK On Goodreads I posted the question, “Who writes like Barbara Pym, one of my favorite authors?” A friend replied that I should try Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. There began my reading of Spark, an author who had escaped me, though she was twice short-listed for the Booker Prize and in 2008 included by The Times as among Britain’s top 50 writers since 1945.
A friend of mine was in four book groups for many years. She couldn’t help herself. Whenever she heard about one, she thought she’d give it a try and quickly found herself hooked.
I’m now in three book groups, so I understand. One is with friends, another is at synagogue, and the third is at a home for seniors. Each group has its own personality, and I wonder how I ever managed with only one.
Good art, Tolstoy said, is of two kinds: either religious or “universal”, which he defines as conveying “the simplest feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world.” I quibble with his use of the term “religious”, although I would accept the broader “spiritual.” About the universal, it’s hard to disagree. The question I ponder here is whether a novel set in Dark Ages Britain, with elements of fantasy including ogres, a dragon, a knight of the Round Table, and a constant mist that causes amnesia, could possibly fall into that category.