Powell’s Books recommends 25 women to read before you die

powells-thumbnail  powells-city-of-books

The staff at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, one of the country’s (and the world’s!) best bookstores, have compiled a list of 25 women writers you need to read. I haven’t read all of these writers myself, but I can certainly vouch for many of them being worth your valuable reading time (Adichie, Armstrong, Atwood, Didion, Erdrich, Hempel, Solnit, Tartt).

As if you didn’t already have enough to read, here are 25 authors who have published well over a hundred books among them.

You can read the full article here.

As with any such list, the results are at least partially random (there should be little dispute about the inclusion of writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich). Just off the top of my head, I would add Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell. Every such list is guaranteed to be a very personal set of preferences.

Who do you think should be on this list? Reply in the Comments below. 

Guest blogger Anne Korkeakivi: My Summer Without Men (Writers)

Anne Korkeakivi

This is a re-post of a guest essay originally published on September 22, 2014. 

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The YaleReview, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK),Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.) 


This summer, I hit the road.

Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.

Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.

These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.

When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.

I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.

This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.

  1. A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
  2. Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
  3. A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
  4. During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
  5. The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
  6. The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
  7. After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
  8. A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
  9. A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
  10. A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
  11. A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
  12. A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
  13. A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
  14. A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.

Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.

If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.

If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)

Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?

Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.

Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6.Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU: a devastating interracial family drama about the consequences of good intentions

Everything+I+Never+Told+You  Celeste-Ng

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

Penguin Books: May 12, 2015

$16.00, 320 pages

Few would argue with the premise that it is one of the key roles of parents to guide their children to a good life, and if at all possible, a better life than that of the parents. But how exactly should one accomplish this worthy goal? Does it require the child to obtain a college education. . . participate in the family’s faith tradition . . . engage in community service . . . get a part-time job during high school . . . travel?

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, explores the many facets of this premise, particularly the effects of well-intentioned but flawed parents. The result is an absorbing and heartbreaking family drama.

We learn in the first line that 16-year-old “Lydia is dead.” Although we know within the first paragraph what has happened and how, we don’t know the answer to the essential question when a teenager is found dead: why. Everything I Never Told You, set in Ohio in 1977, is a character study of the Lee family, both as five individuals and as a unit with very complex dynamics. But it is also a literary mystery, as the narrative methodically investigates Lydia’s life to find the answer to her untimely death. Was it an accident, homicide, suicide? How did it happen and who was involved?

The pleasure in reading Ng’s book is in the way she unfolds the story. We work our way backwards through the lives of her father James, a Chinese-American who is a college professor, and her mother, Marilyn, a white woman from Virginia who marries James in 1958, when such a marriage is against the law in half the country. James has been scarred by his experiences growing up and in college; Marilyn feels her ambitious life plan was derailed by marriage and an early pregnancy. But they love each other and are determined to make their unorthodox marriage work.

Not surprisingly, they work out their psychological and emotional issues in the lives of their children, especially middle child Lydia. Her father is obsessed with Lydia fitting in and being socially successful. Her mother has a single-minded devotion to ensuring that Lydia receives the best education possible so that nothing can be denied her.

“Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection.”

But what about Lydia? What does she want? Can she please her parents or will she disappoint them? Does her parents’ behavior put her in a pressure cooker or does she thrive under their attention and concern? Does she even know her own mind in this regard? What kind of life does she want to lead as a high school student and beyond? “And Lydia herself — the reluctant center of their universe — every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.”

The domestic situation is complicated by her relationship with her older brother Nathan. Despite his peerless academic performance, his parents seem to take him for granted. In the Lee home, it’s all Lydia, all the time. He has learned to accept this but a price is paid. He and Lydia have grown up nearly as close as twins, with a complex interdependence.  “All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders.” But a change occurs shortly before Lydia’s death. After the funeral, Nathan is determined to play detective and find Lydia’s killer.

The Lees’ youngest child, Hannah, seems almost like an afterthought in the family. But her quiet powers of observation allow her to play a key role in helping the Lees figure out what happened to Lydia.

As the title suggests, Lydia has been keeping many secrets from her family. They are not the obvious stuff of melodrama (sex, drug abuse, crime, etc.), but are instead potentially more powerful and destructive.

Ng manages this domestic dissection with aplomb. The story is told in a calm narrative voice that allows the facts to speak for themselves; they are persuasive enough that readers don’t need to be manipulated into an emotional reaction.

Everything I Never Told You was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2014 and was later chosen by Amazon as the Best Novel of 2014. Celeste Ng’s intimate understanding of these characters allows her to bring them to life, make you care about them, and then break your heart. Knowing the truth behind Lydia’s death will provide closure, but it is still devastating.

GIRL AT WAR a riveting exploration of lifelong effects of war on identity and memory

Girl at War  Sara Novic

Girl at War

By Sara Novic

Random House: May 12, 2015

316 pages, $26.00

In her impressive debut novel, Sara Novic has gifted readers with a riveting coming of age story set against the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 90s. Girl at War explores the impact of an incomprehensible war on 10-year-old Ana Juric and her family and friends in Zagreb, Croatia.

The opening 91-page section, “They Both Fell,” joins the ranks of classic war fiction with its unblinking child’s-eye-view of war. Ana lives a relatively normal life in her family’s apartment in Zagreb, distinguished only by her appealing tomboy nature and close friendship with a boy named Luka.

But when the Serbs begin bombing parts of Croatia, and a Serbian militia group made up of drunken louts with automatic weapons establishes roadblocks as an excuse to slaughter innocent Croats, life for the Juric family quickly implodes. While we have read stories like this before, Novic is a gifted enough writer to make the “same old story” newly compelling and heartbreaking.

Novic then jumps ahead ten years to catch up with college student Ana in New York City. In Part II, “Somnambulist,” we learn that she was adopted by a Philadelphia area couple and now exists in a schizophrenic world: her present, in which she is an Americanized young woman, and her past, which refuses to release her into the future. She is an insomniac, haunted by the violence she witnessed close to home and her brief role as a child soldier in the resistance. Eventually, she decides the past’s ownership of her psychological and emotional life must be addressed, so during her summer break she impulsively returns to Croatia to face down her ghosts.

In Part III, “Safe House,” we are taken back to Ana’s wartime experiences, which are even more horrifying than we believed when we were abruptly, but powerfully, yanked from them at the end of Part I. Suffice to say, it soon becomes clear why the 20-year-old American Ana is a tortured soul with unfinished business to attend to.

Part IV, “Echoed by the Trees,” picks up where Part II left off, as Ana searches for answers to several questions, reconnects with an adult Luka, and faces her worst fears.

Girl at War succeeds in being both particular and universal. Novic brings to vivid life this one story of the Balkan civil war while exploring the profound, lifelong effects war has on an individual, regardless of time or place. Ana is a memorable character worth getting to know. And Girl at War will leave an indelible impression on readers’ minds.

How to Stop the Hecklers (of Your Own Mind): Wise Words from Women Writers

Jen Grow  My Life as a Mermaid


By Jen Grow

What is the most difficult part of writing? This question came up at a recent Q&A where I had the good fortune to be a featured writer. The other writers on the panel, all women, talked about the insecurity of a terrible first draft, the anxiety that comes from being lost in a plotline, or the frustration with never-ending revisions. For me, the most difficult part of writing is the internal battle with perfectionism and self-doubt. It’s hard to have faith in the process of writing when you’re being heckled by your own mind.

In some ways, all of us on the panel were saying the same thing, calling it by different names. It’s not uncommon to become discouraged. Frustration, insecurity, uncertainty and self-doubt are occupational hazards that have attacked some of the most talented writers I know, stopping them from writing altogether. For those of us not blessed with healthy egos (meaning, healthy, not big), it takes fortitude to persevere. Also, the subtle insanity of relentless hope.

While there are lots of ways to fortify oneself, the best thing I’ve found that doesn’t cause a hangover in the morning is to drink in the words of other writers who have persevered. I collect quotes, especially the wisdom of other women, and reread them when I’m feeling especially defeated. Here are a few gems that have kept me going:

“Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it.” This instruction from Anne Lamott is helpful when I feel as though I’m somehow lacking because I can’t write a brilliant story (or, in this case, blog post) from the very first word. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart — your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.” That’s why I was born? Cool. True or not, it makes me feel better to think it.

What happens after I’ve written my shitty first draft is this: I distract myself with eleven hundred other things. Not just time-wasting things to procrastinate, but necessary tasks that semi-responsible adults do to remain semi-responsible. Brenda Ueland gives me permission to do otherwise:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first — at least, for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.”

I love that she uses the phrase “ailments of discouragement.” Thank you, Brenda, for telling me the cat litter can wait and that it’s OK if I wear the same clothes three days in a row. No matter how often I put off loading and unloading the dishwasher, eat popcorn for dinner, or consciously choose not to binge on Netflix, there’s still, always, the intense pressure I put on myself to write more, produce more, publish more. Just look at all my other writer friends on Facebook. Seems like they’re publishing best-selling, award-winning works every other day.

“If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones — what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?)”

Yes, Lorrie Moore, I am raising my fist. Thank you for acknowledging that this is not easy, that it takes time, that I’m just like you. I could use a hausfrau, or maybe a clone — one that goes to work full-time while I stay home and write. On a bad day, this might be a cue for self-pity, except for the words of three very wise women.

Doris Lessing: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

George Eliot : “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

And Alice Walker: The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

Thank you, ladies, for reminding me again and again to tap into my own power. I grew up in a working-class family and had limited ideas about what was possible. Even though I nursed my creative aspirations diligently, I believed that success was reserved for another breed of person and could never happen for me. It took many years to realize I was wrong — wrong in a good way. Fortunately, I was in great company with Sharon Olds: I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

With the great wisdom of other women to guide me, I still question my place in things from time to time. Not as much as I used to, and not with as much fervor, but still. I think it is the condition of every writer, male or female. So I’ll end with this quote from Andrea Barrett:

“I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Fortunately, for us, it did not work out that way.


Jen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, won the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. [My review is here.] She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She co-authored the book Seeking the Spirit (Morehouse Publishing, 2006) with Harry Brunett. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and their zoo of cats and dogs. 

“Urgency. Please.” Beth Kephart on the need for honest, relevant fiction

Beth Kephart

This essay was originally posted on August 4, 2014 but remains just as relevant and urgent a year later. 

I need them urgent. I need them to persuade me of their relevance, to yank me by the hair, to stop me in my whirling tracks, to somehow give me faith (still, still) in this planet rotten with injustice.

I am a bore, I am a scold, I am no fun, excuse me and but:

There is a girl in the Gaza strip paralyzed neck to foot and (also) orphaned. There is an Ebola virus mad with intent. There is a lake that holds no water in California, a husband murdered by the cops, so many lost Syrians that we are losing count, disappearing birds, confounding politics, Salvadoran children running toward a country that will turn them back, a comatose boy in a hospital bed, a mother’s young son going blind and if, in this time, in this place, you ask me to understand narratives built merely to sell, stories packaged merely to distract, books sold merely on the basis of hollow hype—well, I can’t.

I’m sorry. I can’t.

I need my books urgent. I require the meticulously unveiled. I insist on purposeful, on stories that sizzle in. I need characters that help me believe that we human beings are capable of deep thinking, tenderness, complication, problems solved, humanity. Humans capable of humanity. That’s what I want. I need the books I read to give me signs of that.

Desperation—the news fills me with it. Intelligence—I’m desperate for that. For sentences that surprise me, structures that appease me, characters who give me something like truth, and something like hope, and something like proof that both are still possible, still available to us. Don’t talk down to me, don’t try to trick me, don’t fudge, don’t diminish, don’t pimp your characters or your storylines out. Don’t tell me the book before me is the next Eat, Pray, Love or the Hunger Games on steroids or Andrew Smith without the grasshoppers or the sideways, because imitation doesn’t sound like urgency to me. It doesn’t sound essential. It sounds nugatory and also pyrrhic; it sounds cruelly hollowed out.

There are people out there hurting. There is a planet splitting apart. If we, as writers, are going to make a difference, we have to stop writing toward headlines, toward gimmicks, toward sales, toward the inevitable flaming out. We have to know where we are living, and what is at stake, and what we can do about this here, and this now.

We must write the book that might proudly stand as the last book ever written, ever read.

Time is running out.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 18 books of non-fiction, poetry and young adult fiction, including One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books, April 2015), Going Over, a Berlin Wall novel (Chronicle Books), Nest. Flight. Sky: on love and loss, one wing at a time (Shebooks), and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham). Her articles and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as magazines like Parenting, Family Circle, Real Simple, and Reader’s Digest. She teaches and lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Guest blogger Lisa Gornick: Is my book a novel?

Louisa Meets Bear by Lisa Gornick

By Lisa Gornick

This essay was originally published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux as part of their Work in Progress website and is published here with their permission. http://www.fsgworkinprogress.com/2015/06/is-my-book-a-novel/

“A novel?” a friend emailed after reading an early review of what I’d thought was my collection of linked stories. A week later, a second review also called the book a novel. I wondered, Is my book a novel?

These distinctions—story collection, linked stories, novel—are, of course, semantic: we can call a shopping list a poem, or a compendium of paragraph vignettes a story collection, or an unbroken stream of words a novel. And, indeed, when I’d first talked about my book, I had described it as a “novel in fragments” in that I hoped readers would read front to back, following a thread that tied the stories together to the end. Still, the book no more matches the traditional templates for a novel than do tofu cubes for breakfast or glazed cucumbers for dessert.

Every book has a story behind a story, and it is the one behind Louisa Meets Bear that might explain why the book is a novel for some readers. When I was first thinking about putting together a collection, I reread the ten individual pieces more or less in the order in which I’d written them over two decades. Within this group, there were two linked sets: a long story (some might call it a novella) with a shorter story that zooms in on something elided in the longer piece, and two stories that connect as a straightforward chronological sequence.

Although the two sets of linked stories shared no characters, I was struck by how they seemed to come out of the same world, like one of those blocks of Indian restaurants, each with their own name and signage, rumored to have a single basement kitchen. In fact, this sense of a shared world extended across all of the stories—as if the characters were cousins or ex-lovers or childhood friends. What would happen, I wondered, if I made this actually the case?

Using the long story (or maybe it’s a novella) with its four central characters as the hub, I took a fresh look at the characters in the other stories. What if the girl who runs out of a Venice trattoria is the child of the girl who gets pregnant by the husband her professor pushed on her? What if the man with the leather bomber jacket becomes the banker who tells the bereaved children’s book writer about the Guatemalan kids who’d called him Jesus con un camion? What if the woman who drives her pickup from Prince Edward Island to Manhattan in search of her estranged son is the sister of the boy who loses his girlfriend to the man in the bomber jacket?

Creating the connections was exhilarating, like I was in the midst of a labyrinthine conspiracy– the challenge to not go overboard, as in a comic thriller where the girl at the coat check is the hired assassin and the guy driving the taxi blows up the tunnel. Then came the hard work. My editor described the book as a jigsaw puzzle, but in truth only some of the pieces initially fit together. At a recent panel on historical fiction, an author talked about how the key question for her is whether two people could have been in the same place at the same time. For me, the question was slightly different: If Event A happened at X time, then when must Event B have occurred—and would that make narrative sense? If the pregnant girl listens to her brother’s outrage about Kent State, then how old is the girl who flees the trattoria in Venice? If the children’s book writer meets Jesus con un camion when trees and lampposts are tied with yellow ribbons, then when was he driving thatcamion? For the pieces to fit together, corners had to be whittled off and new bits added to map events and places onto one chronology—an exercise that came to good use when my assiduous copy editor presented me with his own accounting sheet of facts, such as “There were no home pregnancy tests in 1975; Author, please fix date.”

Along the way, though, something quite wonderful happened. It was akin to a visit to a friend’s childhood home during which you finally understand why your friend lines up all the salad dressings in the refrigerator with labels facing out and flees any man who treats her well. As the stories took their places, I could see my characters and my themes through a wider lens. Now I knew who the girl seduced by the man in the bomber jacket ultimately marries and why she gives up her unwanted poems for baking cakes. I understood the impact of a brother’s gift of his share of an inheritance on the woman who takes her pickup to Manhattan. A drug dealer husband changed from a Puerto Rican man to a guy who claimed he’d grown up on Park Avenue and sung backup for Joni Mitchell, and Jesus con un camion gained a feminist superstar mother who wrote about the Eurocentrism of the condemnation of clitorectomies. Only the last story in the book was written with the connections in place, and it was only then that the trajectories of many of my characters became clear.

Beyond these plotting and thematic issues, there was another, more elusive level, I came to see, in which the stories were of a piece. The underlying voice had grown up alongside me, moving from the young adulthood in which I wrote the earliest stories to the deep middle-age of the later ones. To my surprise, there wasn’t straight-forward development such that the earlier writing felt like embarrassing juvenilia. Yes, I cringed rereading some of the stories written decades ago, and was relieved to have an opportunity to revise them with the greater technical control and altered taste I have now. Yes, I saw the change of sensibilities between my earlier and later narrators, and was thankful to get rid of some of the most egregiously sophomoric views of the earlier work. But the younger writing had an underlying exuberance and freedom that had morphed into a more contemplative bent in the later stories. And in some of the early work, there was a surprising prescience—as in the story of the woman estranged from her son, written long before I was a mother—in which my characters knew more than I consciously understood then about the heartbreak of letting children go.

So, Is my book a novel? The stories still stand alone, but together they make a larger story with characters who start out on one path and end up on another, and themes that unfold from beginning to end. It’s a book that happened as much as was written—and it’s not one I can imagine happening again in my lifetime.. Reader, you decide.

Barnes and Noble


Lisa Gornick is the author of the recently released Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as well as two earlier novels: Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin). Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Agni, The New York TimesPrairie Schooner, and Slate, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories anthology. She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.