The Hundred-Year House offers absorbing hybrid of family saga, literary mystery, examination of creative life

The Hundred-Year House   Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House

By Rebecca Makkai

Viking, July 10, 2014

$26.95, 335 pages

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest. When he learns that several file cabinets containing Laurelfield Arts Colony records are locked up in the attic, Doug becomes a man obsessed. His biography has stalled early in the research stage and he fervently believes the documentation needed to break his writer’s block and lead to a groundbreaking biography will be found in those file cabinets. But Gracie won’t let him or anyone else near the attic.

Doug and Zee soon find themselves disturbed by the huge portrait of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, hanging in the dining room. Violet’s spirit permeates Laurelfield, and not because she and her husband were the estate’s original residents starting in 1900 or because she was involved with the opening of the arts colony. Violet committed suicide somewhere on the property, but no one will say where or how. What is known is that Augustus Devohr, of the aristocratic but cursed Toronto Devohrs, had the lakeside estate built for Violet in 1900.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug. The plot is complicated, with many characters living at or orbiting around Laurelfield in each era.

The Hundred-Year House shows us that the history of both people and a place are not always what we expect and in some cases can never truly be known. This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place. The story of Laurelfield the family estate and Laurelfield Arts Colony is even more compelling and provocative than you can imagine. When you finish the Prologue (set in 1900) on page 335, you will be tempted to turn to Part I (1999) and start all over again, looking for all the clues and insights you missed the first time through.

I enjoyed The Hundred-Year House from beginning to end (or should I say from the end to the beginning?), and it stands as one of my favorite books of 2014.

 

 

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Fall Fiction Preview: An Embarrassment of Riches

Fall is only a month away, and that means arguably the best season of the year for fiction. I’ve selected 15 upcoming releases to share with the enthusiastic and open-minded readers of this blog. I’m sure you’ll find a least a few books to add to your fall reading list.

Nayomi Munaweera   Munaweera -- Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Nayomi Munaweera – Island of a Thousand Mirrors (St. Martin’s, Sept. 2)

Sounding reminiscent of Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane, Meenaweera’s debut novel captures life in Sri Lanka before and during the island’s civil war, as it follows the Sinhala family of Yasodhara and their interactions with Tamil people. Although Yasodhara escapes to Los Angeles, her relationship with a Tamil girl pulls her back to Sri Lanka.

Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis – Rainey Royal (Soho Press, Sept. 9)

Rainey Royal explores the unusual life of the 14-year-old title character, who lives in 1970s Greenwich Village with her jazz musician father. Fourteen narratives provide readers with a kaleidoscopic view of this independent, feisty, yet still innocent young woman’s coming of age.

Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage   StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven (Knopf, Sept. 9)

The much-talked about upcoming novel from Emily St. John Mandel combines several ideas into one riveting read. Set in the near future after a devastating flu has wiped out 99% of the population, Station Eleven is part dystopian adventure, part character study, and part social commentary on the way we live now. It is also beautifully written and elegiac without being utterly depressing. I could not put it down.

Eimear McBride   A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Eimear McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House Press, Sept. 9)

McBride’s debut has taken the UK literary scene by storm in 2014, winning the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, and the 2013 Goldsmith’s Prize. Girl is the story of the haunted life of a young Irish girl whose brother suffered from a brain tumor as a child and has remained the center of their mother’s attention. Helen Fraser, chair of the Bailey’s judges, described the book as “an amazing and ambitious first novel that impressed the judges with its inventiveness and energy.  This is an extraordinary new voice – this novel will move and astonish the reader.”

Margaret Atwood 2   Atwood -- Stone Mattress

Margaret Atwood – Stone Mattress: Stories (Nan A. Talese, Sept. 16)

Canada’s grand dame of the novel follows up her MaddAddam trilogy with her first collection of stories in nearly a decade. Unlike her dystopian trilogy, these nine probing stories take place in the present and the past. Like fellow Canadian Alice Munro, Atwood writes stories in which novels appear to be compressed.

Sarah Waters   the paying guests - sarah waters

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Riverhead, Sept. 16)

In the depressed, disillusioned post-WWI years, a war widow and her daughter are forced to take in lodgers. The young couple they take on proceeds to change their lives. Waters is a master of literary historical suspense (Fingersmith, The Night Watch, The Little Stranger).

Merritt Tierce   Love Me Back

Merritt Tierce – Love Me Back (Doubleday, Sept. 16)

Tierce was named to the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year based on early readings of this debut novel about a Dallas waitress and her relentless downward spiral. Tierce fearlessly examines the decadent, self-destructive life of this young single mother in ferocious prose. Descriptions of the book sound like the writing of Jamie Quatro (I Want to Show You More, 2013).

Alix Christie   gutenberg's apprentice

Alix Christie – Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper Collins, Sept. 23)

This debut novel tells the world-changing story of Gutenberg and the first printing press in the form of a story that alternates between a compelling read and a history lesson.

Hilary Mantel   Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher & Other Stories (Henry Holt & Co., Sept. 30)

Perhaps no other writer has received more acclaim in the past five years than Mantel has for her reconception of the historical novel in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize. Here she presents a short story collection to tide readers over while she completes the Thomas Cromwell trilogy (due next year).

Marilynne-Robinson   Lila

Marilynne Robinson – Lila (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Oct. 7)

Robinson’s new novel is something of a sequel to Gilead. Lila trades her hardscrabble life on the run for respectability as a minister’s wife. But her past remains to haunt her and her marriage. Can Lila make the transition to a normal life? Is that even what she really wants?

Jane_Smiley   Some Luck

Jane Smiley – Some Luck (Knopf, Oct. 7) The irrepressibly versatile Smiley – like Marilynne Robinson in Lila — returns to Iowa, the location of her best novels (A Thousand Acres, Moo) to tell the story of the Langdon family across three decades in the 20th century. Some Luck, the first book in a planned trilogy, takes readers through the 1920’s, one chapter per year.

Jessica Anderson   Tirra Lirra by the River

Jessica Anderson – Tirra Lirra by the River (Melville House, Oct. 7)

This reissue of an Australian classic originally published in 1984 places the reader in the head of 70-year-old Aussie Nora Porteous when she returns to Brisbane after nearly a lifetime away, spent first in Sydney and then, for many years, in London. This 144-page novella won the Miles Franklin Award, the highest literary honor in Australia (which Anderson also won for The Impersonators in 1990). She died in 2010 at age 94.

Kathleen Winter   Freedom in American Songs

Kathleen Winter – The Freedom in American Songs: Stories (Biblioasis, Oct. 21)

Winter is a well-known Canadian writer whose novel, Annabel (2010), was #1 in Canada and was nominated for the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction), the IMPAC Dublin Award, and three major prizes at home. These stories feature eccentric characters living idiosyncratic lives.

Judy Chicurel   if-i-knew-you-were-going-to-be-this-beautiful-i-never-would-have-let-you-go-by-judy-chicurel

Judy Chicurel – If I Knew You Were This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go (Putnam, Oct. 30)

Set in 1972, this collection of linked stories is a coming of age story of both a young woman, Katie, and the working class beach town in which she has spent her 18 years. Katie and her friends face a changing world in which class, war, and relationships often confound them. Chicurel captures the time and place in pungent prose that demands to be read aloud.

Miriam Toews   all-my-puny-sorrows

Miriam Toews – All My Puny Sorrows (McSweeney’s, Nov. 6)

Toews is another well-regarded Canadian novelist. Her sixth novel is the story of two drastically different sisters who were raised in a Mennonite family. Despite one’s success and one’s struggles, they remain close. In fact, Sorrows finds the sister with the messy life trying to prevent her famous and wealthy sister from killing herself.

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Guest blogger Mary Kay Zuravleff: Out of the mouths of teen daughters oft come literary gems

Mary Kay Zuravleff

Who wants to join a year-long class to revise their novels? Optimistic that if I build it, they will come, I spent yesterday drafting a course description and syllabus. Of course, I also spent the day with my teenager and in a freelance consultation on a memoir and trying to learn Excel and and and. When the dog needed a walk, I decided we all needed one, and I did what all mothers do, which is everything at once. Any more, I’m not even sure I could do one thing at a time.

The dog was no help, but the daughter—oh, the daughter was magnificent. Our topic was short novels that my hypothetical class could not only read but also dissect. To better understand their own novels, we would isolate all the working parts of a few good books, starting with the first line. Generally speaking, the entire book is in the first line. The entire book is also in the point of view, verb tense, structure, plot and subplot, characters, language, and ending. Come to think of it, I should probably be teaching a course called Mapping the Novel Genome.

Eliza and I took turns urging Zelda along—the dog is twelve now and it’s 90 degrees here, so putting one paw in front of another is something of a chore. Meanwhile, my daughter started listing short books for my consideration. “What about To Kill a Mockingbird?” That was her opening suggestion! Most excellent idea and daughter. I’d been wanting to reread Harper Lee’s masterpiece, which in addition to being short is also a first novel. And not only that, many first novelists gravitate to that structure: an adult looking back on a traumatic childhood experience.

Next up: “Or Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Everyone’s already read it, probably.” Another gem. It’s enlightening to take apart a well-constructed book that has made it to the top of everyone’s list and to revisit technically a book you read for pleasure. All that and humor too—really, it was a great idea. Maria Semple uses quirkiness to serve her plot, which is rarer than you might think. So many writers confuse imagination with outlandishness. As with everything else, there needs to be a reason that a character has two heads or that gravity no longer works in your fictional universe.

I was still playing out the joys of Bernadette when Eliza said, “What about that book about the girl growing up in the South? It’s on the bookshelf by your computer.”

That bookshelf is for some of my favorites. “Ellen Foster?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I read that.”

So I was doing something right. Ellen Foster, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is also a first novel, and there’s reason to believe that if either were released today, it would be classified young adult. The winning voice that Kaye Gibbons conjures for Ellen Foster and the character’s clear quest—to get herself adopted and to be rid of her dad—could well-serve a revising writer. I still remember the malaproprisms Gibbons invented for Ellen: her dying mother suffered from “romantic” rather than rheumatic fever as a child, which underscored not only the mother’s weak heart but also her horrific marriage.

The hits just kept coming: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I chimed in with Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Unlike the first three suggestions, which Eliza had read, these were books on her wish list. Now they were on mine, too. I was only planning on choosing three novels, and if you haven’t noticed by now, every single book she proposed was written by a woman. To be fair, she’d recommended Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451, great short novels, which I’d rejected because I wanted to stick with realism, and I’d suggested The Great Gatsby, which she rejected because she didn’t like it. Did I need to find a novel written by a man because it was written by a man? Frankly, I’m always paying attention to keeping my lists balanced—I serve as one of the curators of the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series, which aims for a diverse and thrilling mix of writers. Eliza didn’t think it was important, and certainly literary journals, national newspapers, and writing conferences don’t break a sweat including a representative number of women.

Which is why I was surprised at her final suggestion. “What about a Terry Pratchett book—any one of them.”

Here was the only proposal that didn’t fit. Pratchett writes long, clever fantasy novels, and our entire dog walk we’d been discussing the need for short, realistic books. That’s when I remembered her surprise when she discovered that Terry Pratchett was a man’s name. Back then she’d told me that he wrote so well, she’d assumed he was a woman.

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! (FSG, 2013), named a 2013 Notable Book by the Washington Post, which called it “a family novel for smart people.” She is also the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, which won the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and she is cofounder of D.C. Women Writers. www.mkzuravleff.com

 

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Flavorwire’s “50 Excellent Novels by Female Writers Under 50″

Book-related lists are everywhere (including on this blog), but some are more equal than others. On August 7, Flavorwire published a list of “50 novels by female writers that everyone should read.” Fifty novels makes for a long list, but I have to say that this is an outstanding selection of novels and writers. You can’t go wrong here.

I especially second their recommendations of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Jennifer duBois’ A Partial History of Lost Causes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning, Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, and Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge.

http://flavorwire.com/471139/50-excellent-novels-by-female-writers-under-50-that-everyone-should-read/view-all

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Author Carrie La Seur on the unique life of Montana artist-farmer Harry Koyama

Carrie La Seur

Carrie La Seur is a seventh-generation descendant of Montana homesteaders who was educated at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, Oxford University (which she attended as a Rhodes Scholar), and Yale Law School. She is an environmental lawyer and the founder of the nonprofit legal organization Plains Justice. She practices law on behalf of farmers, ranchers, and tribal members, and writes when she can from an office in Billings, Montana. She is also a licensed private pilot. Her work has appeared in such publications as Grist, Harvard Law and Policy Review, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and Salon. La Seur’s debut novel, The Home Place, was published on July 29 by William Morrow. [You can read my review here and my interview with La Seur here.]

This essay was originally published on the Public Books website as the July 29, 2014 installment of “Public Streets,” a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery (reprinted here with the author’s permission). In it, La Seur profiles the unique life of Montana beet farmer and Western artist Harry Koyama. 

Montana Avenue in Billings is a startlingly urban raft on the vast, grassy sea of rural southern Montana. It has microbreweries, artists, a cowboy hat–fixing genius, solar-powered lofts, and huge summer street events, along with homeless people, addicts, and the occasional break-in or fatal stabbing in an alley. Saucer-size rodeo buckles, business suits, elaborate mustaches, and sleeve tattoos co-exist.

Shop doors stand open on summer evenings, when the draw of Harry Koyama’s narrow gallery strengthens to an irresistible force. Harry himself is the lure, as much as his flamboyant canvases of wildlife, wild places, and the vivid people who populate southern Montana. His presence pulls in locals who normally wouldn’t think of buying original art.

“You end up doing a lot of explaining,” Harry says, hands on knees on a straight-backed chair in the small studio behind his shopfront, having given a visitor the comfortable sofa that dominates the space. “Most people have some kind of enjoyment of art whether they know it or not.”

HarryKoyama_bighorn

In his 60s now, Harry came to painting late, after 35 years farming east of Billings. His hands are smooth but still bear the signs of rough work. He is slight and brown, with thinning hair and a face that falls into smiling lines even when he isn’t smiling.

In this place, Harry is an unlikelihood. Although ethnically Japanese, he has lived a classically Montanan life. His father, Tom, was born in Sheridan, Wyoming, the son of railroad immigrants from Wakayama, Japan, who established a farm south of Hardin, Montana. Harry was born and raised in Hardin (current population a bit over 3,500) with seven brothers and sisters. He earned a fine arts degree and kept his creativity alive doing commissioned metal art—a popular local form—in winter. After a triumphant struggle with cancer in the ’90s, Harry returned to his boyhood love of painting. Collectors responded so passionately that by 2003, he was able to paint full-time. Now his pieces go around the world, including to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Beijing, where one of Harry’s massive bison watches over Ambassador Baucus.

As history has a way of doing, World War II intervened in this pastoral American story. Tom Koyama left for California shortly before the war broke out and married Emiko Kubo there in 1942. The War Relocation Authority arrested the pair on their honeymoon and shipped them to the Gila River War Relocation Center southeast of Phoenix, Arizona. Friends in Montana intervened and secured the Koyamas’ early release by insisting that the war effort required Tom’s expertise at bringing in the sugar beet harvest—but not before Harry’s eldest sister was born in camp.

Although Tom and Emiko never spoke bitterly of their imprisonment, they had camp friends who did so the rest of their lives, Harry recalls. His boyhood in the prosperous postwar years was distant from the experience of his parents and grandparents, but there were poignant moments. One of his art professors, Ben Steele, was a survivor of the Bataan Death March who struggled to put the past aside when a young Japanese American named Harry walked into his class in the 1960s. “I never knew until years later,” Harry says of his old friend Ben, who welcomed the younger man to their Billings artists’ group when Harry moved to town in ’07.

HarryKoyama

As one of very few Asian Americans in the area, Harry occupied a middle ground between the white ranching community and the Crow Indians whose reservation borders Hardin. Today his art also occupies that middle ground. He paints Crow tribal members in full powwow regalia, as well as ranchland that has since been strip-mined for coal. His paintings often come with a story. “This is on so-and-so’s place,” he’ll tell a visitor, or “I saw that pheasant up Sarpy Creek a few years ago.” Relentlessly, the work calls out to the place.

Most of the year, Montana presents a nearly monochromatic landscape: white in winter, brown in summer, with a bright green moment in late spring. Raised on that sober palette, Harry Koyama is wanton in his use of color. His bears are red. His bison glow golden.

“Color is my own enthusiasm with the profession and the medium,” he says. “Being able to express yourself with color is why I get into the vibrancy.”

The animals are more lively and real for the impossible shades that represent them, because Montana’s wildlife is surreal, bigger than life, impossible to believe when you see it for the first time. The color evokes the awestruck feeling of those encounters.

Encountering Harry, surrounded by these canvases, is a similar experience, a flash of brilliance on a quiet day, a busy street at the heart of a place he holds in the palm of his hand and offers, without bitterness.

 

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

Everything I Never Told You   Celeste-Ng

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

The Penguin Press, 6/26/14

$26.95, 292 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 received a starred review from Booklist. 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.

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

Beth Kephart

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, including, most recently 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).

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