Summer Fiction Preview: Sixteen novels and four story collections that offer something for every taste

I’m a little late in posting my Summer Fiction Preview, in part because my wife and I spent 10 days in New York City and Philadelphia in June. But I figure that, since summer actually only started 10 days ago, I’m within the grace period. Nevertheless, I backed up to books released during June because I think they deserve my attention, and yours.

June 2nd:

Saint Mazie

Jami Attenberg – Saint Mazie (Grand Central Publishing)

Attenberg’s previous book, The Middlesteins, received a great deal of acclaim, and her follow-up is generating a lot of anticipation. Saint Mazie was inspired by the life of one of the residents profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. A party girl during the Jazz Age and Prohibition, Mazie becomes the proprietress of The Venice, a residential hotel for the down-and-out in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her story is told through her diary and the voices of many of the people whose lives she affected so dramatically.

Sunlit Night

Rebecca Dinerstein — The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury USA)

Americans clearly love Scandinavian settings, but in her debut novel Dinerstein gives us literary fiction rather than a contemporary mystery-thriller (Larsson, Nesbo, Mankell) or autobiographical fiction (Knausgaard). Two desolate souls, a Manhattan artist seeking sanctuary from a traumatic breakup and a teenage boy whose father has recently died, develop a friendship that brings much-needed warmth to their lives on an island in the Far North of Norway.

The Shore

Sara Taylor — The Shore (Hogarth)

The Shore is a mid-Atlantic update on the Southern gothic tale, a dark collection of a dozen interwoven narratives about the life on a group of islands in Chesapeake Bay. Taylor is only 24 and has made a big impression with her debut; it was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last March, before it was even published. Critics have commented on her powerful narrative voice, impressive prose style, and effective use of changing viewpoints over two centuries.

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

Jennifer Tseng — Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions)

Like The Sunlit Night, Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness explores the relationship of an adult and a teenager in an isolated seaside setting — but with a completely different context and result. Mayumi is leading a quiet life as a librarian in Martha’s Vineyard when she befriends a 17-year-old boy who seems to love books as much as she does. Tseng handles with delicacy and lyricism the complicated situation that develops, as she explores identity, love, and the role of literature in expanding our concept of what we — and our lives — can be.

The Diver's Clothes

Vendela Vida – The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Ecco)

Vida is perhaps best known as the founding co-editor of The Believer, but I know her as the author of the excellent novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Her fourth novel explores the nature of identity and the common desire to start over as someone else. A woman on business in Morocco is robbed of her passport and other identifying documents. The police seem uninterested or, perhaps, even complicit in the crime. In a state of shock, the woman considers the freedom conferred by her circumstances. When she is hired as a stand-in for the lead actress in a movie production, she finds herself adopting her film persona, with intriguing consequences.

June 16th:

In the Country

Mia Alvar – In the Country: Stories (Knopf)

Alvar’s story collection immerses readers in the Filipino experience, both at home and among the diaspora. The stories are set in Manila, New York, and Bahrain, each of which has been home to Alvar, and tell the stories of teachers, students, laborers, nurses, and journalists trying to find their way across chasms of culture and class. Alvar’s work has been cited for distinction in The Best American Short Stories and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Any book that receives high praise from Joan Silber and Celeste Ng is a book worth paying attention to.

June 23rd:

Black Glass

Karen Joy Fowler – Black Glass: Short Fictions (Marion Wood Books/Putnam)

Fowler’s last novel, 2013’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, found massive critical and commercial success, including winning the PEN/Faulkner Award and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In light of this success, Fowler’s publisher, Putnam, has decided to reissue her well-regarded 1998 collection of 15 dark and distinctive stories.

Music for Wartime

Rebecca Makkai — Music for Wartime: Stories (Viking)

Makkai has quickly become one of my favorite writers and people (I follow her on Facebook). She is whip-smart, very funny, and writes with a distinctive perspective and voice. Her 2014 novel, The Hundred-Year House, was one of my favorites of last year, and I’m eagerly anticipating reading her first collection of stories, gathering her short fiction from the last 17 years. And in case you’re wondering about the title, music and war are themes in several stories. This is probably the ideal introduction to a writer you need to know.

Book of Speculation

Erika Swyler — The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press)

Here’s another book in which the protagonist is a librarian. Simon Watson lives alone in his ramshackle family home on the Long Island Sound, where his mother, who worked as a circus mermaid, drowned. One day he receives a book from the 1700s written by the owner of a traveling circus — who describes the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Watson begins to suspect there may be a curse that affects his family, forcing him to track down the younger sister who ran away six years ago. This quirky mystery is drawing comparisons to Water for Elephants and The Night Circus.

June 30th:

Star Side of Bird Hill

Naomi Jackson — The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin)

Set in 1989, this novel tells the story of two sisters from Brooklyn who are sent to Bird Hill in Barbados to spend the summer with their grandmother. One sister embraces the island life and her grandmother’s involvement with island spiritualism called obeah, while the other resists the island’s charm and pines for home. Complications ensue when their father, whom they barely know, arrives on the island. Jackson’s debut novel explores the complexities of family ties, cultural heritage, love, and growing up. Jackson won the Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

July 7th:


Louisa Hall — Speak (Ecco)

In what sounds like a David Mitchell novel, Hall’s novel utilizes five narrators to take readers across three centuries in her study of the universal need for communication and the difficulties involved in understanding and being understood. Readers meet a Puritan woman traveling to the New World, legendary mathematician and computer genius Alan Turin, a Jewish refugee, a socially awkward teenage girl attempting to communicate with an intelligent bot, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, all of whom are trying to reach out to communicate with others who either unable or unwilling to understand.

Among the Ten Thousand Things

Julia Pierpont — Among the Ten Thousand Things (Random House)

Pierpont’s first novel has an intriguing premise that may make you grimace: the wife of a famous New York artist is the intended recipient of a box filled with her husband’s emails to his lover. But their teenage children receive the box instead, opening a Pandora’s box of problems for Jack and his family. Pierpont probes this ticking time bomb of a marriage and the differing reactions of 15-year-old Simon and 11-year-old Kay to their father’s infidelity and betrayal of not just their mother but also themselves. Initial reader reviews indicate that despite strong writing, the novel’s strong start is undercut by its non-chronological timeline.

Girl playing in forest
Girl playing in forest

Lidia Yuknavitch — The Small Backs of Children (Harper)

Yuknavitch is beloved by many writers for her memoir, The Chronology of Water; perhaps this novel will lead to a similar feeling among readers. In Small Backs, she takes us to a war-torn country in Eastern Europe. An American photographer captures an image of a girl fleeing the explosion behind her, which becomes an internationally famous image (similar to the image of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack). That image has a profound impact on the life of one of the photographer’s friends, a writer coping with depression. When her husband enlists the photographer and others to help her by finding the young girl and bringing her to the U.S., unintended results call into question everything they think they know. Yuknavitch applies her fearless gaze to these fraught circumstances with potent results. A good choice for readers who loved Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

July 14th:

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee — Go Set a Watchman (Harper)

What can be said about the most-hyped and anticipated book of the summer that hasn’t already been said? Harper Lee has spent the past half century refusing to publish a follow-up to her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Suddenly, it was announced that a novel considered lost had been found and that Lee had decided — at age 89 — to publish it. Written before Mockingbird and set 20 years later, during the civil rights movement, Go Set a Watchman follows Scout when she returns to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father Atticus. Watchman has been the #1 bestseller on Amazon since the day its publication was announced in early February. Whether it will satisfy readers’ expectations remains to be seen.

August 4th:

Infinite Home

Kathleen Alcott — Infinite Home (Riverhead Books)

When their elderly landlady shows signs of diminished mental capacity, the residents of a Brooklyn brownstone start to worry about their future, particularly in light of their encounters with her unscrupulous son, who wants to evict them. These broken people — a disabled man, a young artist recovering from a stroke, a comedian, a woman afraid to leave her apartment — come together in unexpected ways as they cope with an unsettling reality. Like Barbara Kingsolver’s classic The Bean Trees, Infinite Home addresses the question of just what constitutes a family and what makes a home. Both can be found — or made — in surprising places.

August 11th:

The State We're In

Ann Beattie — The State We’re In: Maine Stories (Scribner)

Beattie returns with a collection of linked stories set in Maine, which she has made her fictional territory in the manner of Faulkner’s northern Mississippi and Munro’s rural Ontario. Beattie’s characters are women at various stages of their lives attempting to bloom where they’re planted. The central, unifying set of stories concerns a teenage girl living with her aunt and uncle one summer. The State We’re In is both literal and figurative.

Beautiful Bureaucrat

Helen Phillips — The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt)

With comparisons to The Twilight Zone, Kafka, Atwood, and Murakami, The Beautiful Bureaucrat looks to be the summer’s surreal reading experience. Josephine works in an anonymous and sterile office inputting numbers day after day into The Database. Eventually, the creepy atmosphere and the temporary disappearance of her husband lead her to probe what might be better left alone. What exactly does her employer do? What does her work mean? This is a strange, unsettling fable about the meaning of life, written in deft, spare prose that propels you through the story.

August 25th:

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

Alexandra Kleeman — You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper)

Kleeman arrives on the scene with a laser beam focused on what it means to be a young woman in contemporary society. The characters are referred to only as A, B, and C, stressing their universal nature. A is trying to do everything right: work hard, play hard, be beautiful, stay informed about all things hip, and create and maintain satisfying relationships. She watches too much television, which has distorted her view of reality, things with her roommate and boyfriend are complicated, and she eventually becomes intrigued with a new mass-marketed religion. Where will A’s obsessive media consumption lead? This is a strange, witty, and insightful novel.

September 15th:

Fates and Furies

Lauren Groff — Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books)

Groff (Arcadia) returns with this impressively rendered examination of a 24-year-long marriage. Groff writes with a lyrical intensity that suits the passionate pair at her novel’s center, creative individuals with an unusual relationship to both truth and secrets. Although it comes out as summer ends, the gripping tragedy of Fates and Furies looks like it will be one of the fall’s most talked-about novels.

September 29th:

The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood — The Heart Goes Last (Nan A. Talese)

Following last year’s story collection, Stone Mattress, Atwood returns to the novel with another dystopian story, this time concerning a married couple who have fallen on hard times and become homeless. They decide to participate in the Positron Project, a social experiment in the community of Consilience. They are provided with a comfortable suburban home for six months of the year; on alternating months, however, they are inmates of the community’s prison system and “Alternates” live in their house. The plot thickens when the wife becomes involved with the couple that lives in their house on alternate months. How much control are they willing to surrender for a shot at contentment? Originally published as a series of four e-book novellas, The Heart Goes Last has been rewritten and expanded into a 320-page novel.

Faulkner’s Rule of Etiquette for Encountering Friends (with Whom You’ve Been Fishing that Very Morning) on the Sidewalk

This is a re-post of an essay written for Read Her Like an Open Book and published on June 25, 2014. It’s one of my favorite guest blog posts. And it seems particularly timely in light of recent events. 

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover  Faulkner

By Brittani Sonnenberg

Two hours outside of Nashville, a severe thunderstorm hit. My mother and I were driving to Oxford, Mississippi, for the third stop of my six-city book tour for Home Leave, and in Jackson, Tennessee a curtain of rain descended. It bore all the fury of a monsoon in Singapore, where my mother and I had often sat out tropical storms. We sat again now in our rental car, helpless, parked at a strip mall, as the splatting drops turned to hail and then exhaled to a quieter rain.

The deluge done, we followed signs to Oxford, turning off the highway and onto a two-lane road, wet and shiny from the rain.

“Looks like Mississippi now,” Mom said, and she was right – the low hum of early evening light coating the glistening kudzu and weathered wooden buildings distinctly resembled Yazoo County, where she had grown up –  but a “West Tennessee Coon Hunters Association” sign laughed at our faulty internal compasses. The radio stations were getting fuzzier but the landscape was sharpening, shaking itself loose from the franchise blur, driven by at highway speeds, to small farms, tired establishments promising ribs, and houses set gently back from the road, that we now took in at a languid 55 miles an hour.

The state line came soon enough, and Holly Springs a few miles further. Night was falling, and the columns and wrap-around porches of the little town’s houses gleamed pale. More shadowy countryside and then Oxford snuck up on us like a kid out of the bushes: a sudden square of activity around the courthouse. On bustling restaurant patios, the women’s hair blow-dried and their dresses just so. I hadn’t brushed my hair that morning, but I had dressed in clean jeans and a nice top for dinner at City Grocery.

My reading at Square Books was scheduled for 5pm the following day. I passed the hours listening to Southern banter and endless stories, low growls of laughter from my mother’s college friends; drinking coffee from a thick mug; walking up to Faulkner’s grave; marching through the wilting heat; down through the kind rows of pines, into Rowan Oak. I had visited Goethe’s house in Frankfurt one month earlier (I live in Berlin) and felt nothing for it. Faulkner is not my favorite (Eudora Welty is), but I loved pacing through his house, absorbing the eyelet covers on the bed, his tiny desk, the angular handwriting on his outlines.

If there is any devoted writer or reader who has not been to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, they need to stop their devoted writing and reading and get down there now. The main store is a charming converted pharmacy (my Great Uncle Jeff has memories of getting ice cream there as a child, more on Uncle Jeff later); Off-Square Books, where the reading was held, is a sweet, welcoming hardwood floor building. I read aloud from the first chapter of my novel, set in Mississippi, and no one threw tomatoes or stalked out in protest when I put on a heavy Southern drawl for the narrator’s voice. Afterwards, we retired to my mother’s friend’s front porch for a lazy early evening of drinking and talking, grateful for the cooling. An Ole Miss baseball game was on in the living room; people drifted in and out of conversations about tailgating plans for the fall and George Saunders’s sentences and the art of lawyering. As the party was winding down, a colossal thunderstorm slammed the street, screaming bloody murder, driving rain onto the porch. Later, as the last guests were leaving, my mother and her friends harmonized to old Baptist hymns on the porch swing.

The next day, our hours waning, we went to see Uncle Jeff, my mother’s uncle, who grew up in Oxford, and now lives in the VA home on the edge of town. We drove there with a parade of relatives and assumed the VA conference room. His daughter wheeled Uncle Jeff in. “The reason I called this meeting,” he boomed, and we laughed. We begged him to tell us Faulkner stories, and Uncle Jeff recalled how Faulkner always wore a suit, how he had taught the ten-year-old Jeff how to box with real boxing gloves, and then Jeff delivered the following anecdote, without saying who had told him. You got the feeling it was a story owned by the town.

One summer morning, Faulkner went out fishing with a good friend. Later in the afternoon, he passed the same friend in the street without greeting him. The friend followed him and said: “I’ve always heard you didn’t greet folks properly on the street, but I’d never witnessed it myself until now. Why would you pass me without saying a word?” And Faulkner said: “We just spent the entire morning talking and fishing. What on earth do we have to say to each other?”

(Or something like that. A sentiment I identify with 100% and would not mind becoming universally accepted etiquette.) Then Uncle Jeff’s memory left Faulkner behind and drifted to playing football with neighborhood kids in the street, getting nickels for ice cream at the pharmacy, and then it was time for us to leave.

For the rest of that hot afternoon, an Oxford resident, playing tour guide, introduced me to an impressive field of kudzu, an undrinkably sweet sweet-tea, a sprawling back porch that rivaled any of Berlin’s pretty wrought iron balconies, and smart, funny women.

I always romanticize the South. I know it’s not right; I’m aware of the region’s cruel contradictions and its stubborn disregard, all too often, for its past and present sins. In Berlin, you can’t walk fifty feet down the sidewalk without seeing gleaming copper bricks, bearing the names of the murdered dead. The World Cup aside, many Germans still walk around profoundly ashamed of Germany. On Oxford’s graceful sidewalks, shaded by magnolia trees, no copper apologies caught my eye. Up until recently, the college band still played Dixie at every ball game. Sometimes I feel guilty for liking the South as much as I do, in spite of its ugly tendencies, for feeling the strong kick of belonging when I’m back. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I never stay too long. Does that rosy fondness, that makes a place feel so familiar, simply indicate the opposite: that you’re just passing through?

I don’t know. Even though my family moved to China when I was twelve, my mother’s Mississippi roots, my five years in Atlanta, and the summers my family spent each year in the Smoky Mountains have made something about the region stick undeniably to me. I feel a similar stickiness from all my other homes, too: Berlin, London, Singapore, Shanghai. Maybe I’m following a Faulknerian aversion to small talk, which is to say, choosing when to belong, never fully committing to one home, keeping my head down on the street, setting stories in the towns I’ve just left behind.

Brittani Sonnenberg has an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. She also serves as a visiting lecturer at the MFA program of the University of Hong Kong. Her award-winning fiction has been widely published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O’Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by Time Magazine, the Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University. She was a European Journalism Fellow at Berlin’s Freie Universität from 2009-2010 and served as the editor of the American Academy’s Berlin Journal from 2011-2013.  Home Leave is her first novel.

THE HOME PLACE blends literary fiction, a suspenseful mystery, and a powerful sense of place into a compelling portrait of a Montana family

The Home Place paperback  Carrie La Seur

The Home Place

by Carrie La Seur

William Morrow: March 31, 2015

$14.99, 320 pages

[This is a re-post of my original review from July 30, 2014.]

No matter how hard we try to escape it, our past is with us. We may succeed in fooling ourselves and others for a certain length of time, but the past has a way of sneaking up on us and tapping on our shoulder. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The same axiom holds true for family and place, the two inescapable, powerful sources that shape us inexorably.

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s school outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. While Alma and Vicky had remained in contact, their relationship was fraught with drama. Vicky began a downward spiral after the car accident, despite adapting fairly well to her prosthetic leg. Although she had been taken in by older brother Walt and his wife Helen, by her early 20’s she was a mother to Brittany and was using drugs, bouncing from one job to another, and relying on number two brother Pete and her sympathetic grandparents to help her with finances and child care.

Alma returns home warily but with the sense of obligation and honor that has always served her well. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business. Did Vicky simply slip on black ice while taking a drug-addled walk at 3 a.m., or did someone have a motive to kill her?

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma’s heart is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billings: “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Walt, a grumbling grizzly of a man, hides in his garage workshop and has little to say to Alma, his wife Helen (in a wheelchair due to worsening multiple sclerosis), or anyone else. Pete, with whom Alma has a good rapport, owns a high-end coffee shop with his partner Shep. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property. And Alma is surprised to find her high school boyfriend is also back in Montana running the family ranch after finishing his education at Stanford.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. The characters are people we care about (or, in the case of the less admirable ones, at least wonder about), the plot is complex and emotionally resonant without sliding into melodrama, and La Seur’s writing is graceful and evocative.

In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced. In that sense, it reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of last year, M.L. Stedman’s impressive debut, The Light Between Oceans. La Seur has already made a name for herself with this sure-handed and cinematic story. She spent nearly a decade writing it while working as an attorney in Billings, and the time and effort shows on every page. Highly recommended!

Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on the role of patience in publishing

Faulty Predictions  KLG

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review, posted on September 26, is here.)

In this essay, written for Read Her Like an Open Book, Lin-Greenberg considers the need for patience and persistence in publishing in light of our increasingly impatient culture.

I: Patience, a History

Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and the free items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.

There was a book that was extremely popular in my elementary school’s library, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and everyone in my third grade class would wait for weeks for their turn to check it out. The library had two copies, the spines on each book reinforced with tape, the edges of the pages rounded from so many readings.

Speaking of the library, there was a section labeled “For Sixth Graders Only,” which contained books with “mature” topics. We would have to wait until our elementary school educations were nearly over before we could even touch those books. Each time I entered or exited the library, I stared at those shelves, thinking of how much longer it would be before I was allowed to read the books. Some of the books I remember residing there were Forever by Judy Blume and The Long Secret (the sequel to Harriet the Spy), and my friends and I spent a lot of time whispering about what might be in those books. (Incidentally, I must say that those gods and goddesses from the Greek myths I was reading in third grade were up to more trouble than most of the characters in the “For Sixth Graders Only” books.)

During junior high, one of my parents would drive me to the Hollywood Video store up the street from our house on some weekend evenings. I’d always go right to the shelf of new release VHS tapes, and more often than not, the movie I wanted was checked out. So I would walk through the comedy section, pick an older movie to watch, and come back the next week and hope the video I wanted was on the shelf. Sometimes it would take a month before the video I wanted was actually available.

I could go on and on about what I waited for during my childhood, but I’ll just give one more example. For my birthday one year, I got a rock tumbler. I plugged it into an outlet in the bathroom and let it run continuously for six weeks. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom and watch the barrel rotate, listen to the rocks clank as they fell to the bottom of the tumbler. Every week or two I’d stop the machine, wash the rocks off, and pour in a finer grade of abrasive grit. The rocks got smoother and smoother, until, during the last week, I poured polishing grit into the tumbler with the rocks, and finally, what emerged six weeks after I started were rocks that were shiny and beautiful.

II: Patience, Revisited

And now? Well, if you want a video, you can likely stream it. If you want a book that’s checked out of the library, you can download it to a device. If you want to know what’s so scandalous about a book you’re not supposed to read, you can Google a synopsis. I am willfully refusing to look up rock tumblers. I don’t want to know that there’s some special chemical that can now polish rocks overnight. I hope there’s not. I hope there are still things that people have to wait for.

III: Waiting

When I began to submit work to literary journals when I was in my mid-twenties, I was unfazed about the long wait times between my submissions and the responses I’d get from editors. After all, I’d been the kid who was delighted when, after waiting for two months, I got a bumper sticker in the mail with the logo of an orange juice company printed on it. I don’t like getting my stories rejected, but I do like getting responses to work I’ve sent out in the world. I have now been submitting work to journals for twelve years, and I’ve gotten used to the slow influx of rejections, some of them coming six, seven, eight months after I’ve submitted. I don’t feel impatient waiting for them; it’s just part of how things work. And once in a while there’s an acceptance, which is certainly something worth waiting for.

Last semester, I talked to the students in my Writing Short Fiction class about submitting work to literary journals. I showed them a packet I’d put together of rejections I’d gotten over the years. Then I pulled up my Submittable account on the screen at the front of the classroom to show them how electronic submissions to journals work. I pointed at the dates when I’d submitted my stories and said that for some of them I’d been waiting almost a year to hear back.

“If you wait for a long time, are they more likely to say yes?” asked one student.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Sometimes it just takes that long for them to get through the work that’s been submitted.”

“But now you have a book coming out,” said another student, “so that means that these submissions listed up on the screen, they’ll all get accepted, right?”

“Oh,” I said, “no. Not at all. I still get rejected all the time.”

My students looked surprised. Or sort of surprised, but mostly sad. I imagined they were thinking how strange and unfair publishing was. Not only do people get rejected regularly, but you have to wait a long time to get this news. How terrible.

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

Several weeks ago I accompanied two student editors of my college’s literary journal to a conference for editors of undergraduate literary journals. For two days, I was in a room full of ambitious young people who cared deeply about reading and writing and wanted to edit the best literary journals they could. One student editor, a freshman at an Ivy League university, gave a presentation about the pressure of publishing. She talked about attending a prestigious summer writing workshop for high school students when she was sixteen. One evening a few of the students were sitting on the lawn outside a building on campus where a famous literary journal was edited. The other students—all of them still in high school—were competitively comparing where they’d been published. They were boasting about their contest wins. The young woman felt miserable and dejected because she hadn’t been published yet. She felt so far behind her peers. When she returned home from the workshop, she started entering contests and didn’t win. She felt like a failure.

Oh my god, I thought. I wanted to leap up on top of a table and scream that someone who’s sixteen has all the time in the world. They don’t need to worry about getting published. They don’t need to stress out about contests. Sure, enter contests if you want, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t win. It’s a cliché, but you win some, you lose some. That’s how life works.

But I also understand that it’s not how life works for some kids. Some kids have only known success. And, hey, that’s great, but if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to get pretty familiar with rejection. Even if your work is good, you will inevitably get turned down at some point. While I listened to this young woman speak, I realized that the current epidemic of impatience wasn’t just confined to people not wanting to wait for individual rejections. It also involved people thinking that if they didn’t publish—and maybe if they didn’t get a book contract—before they were out of their teens, they had failed at being a writer.

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with.

So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

Many of my students have asked me how my life has changed since my book was published. “Not much,” I tell them, and they always look disappointed. “I mean,” I say, “it’s a good thing to have work out in the world. But it’s not like winning an Oscar. It’s not like overnight my life has completely changed.”

But here’s one thing that has changed: people have been asking me how they can get published. No one asked me this before my book came out. And, well, I don’t have a secret formula. I submitted, I waited, I revised. I kept working. I took old stories out of the collection and replaced them with new ones each year. I submitted individual stories to journals and the collection to contests. I entered dozens of contests for seven years.

People have come up to me after I’ve done readings and asked for my advice about publishing. I’ve had adults do this, and I’ve had college students do it. I ask if they are taking classes and what they’ve been writing. Most of the time, people aren’t writing much but they have fantasies of being a writer. One man had a penname picked out already. One student—a biology major—said he’d never actually written a story before, but he thought it would be really cool to get some fiction published.

I try to be encouraging and direct people to resources like The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers magazine. If they are students, I encourage them to take writing classes. (I’ve also been told, however, “I don’t have time to take writing classes, but that’s okay because I already know how to write.”) As I’ve talked to more people who want to be published, this is what I’ve learned: a lot of people want to be published, but they don’t want to put in the work to get published. They don’t want to be patient, to work on their craft for years, and then to wait months for responses to their work. They just want to be published and they want it to happen quickly. And here’s the problem (and I apologize in advance for sounding like a curmudgeon): now anyone can be published. I’m talking Facebook, personal blogs, Twitter. These forums are great in many ways, but they also give people instant gratification. Post a photo of your cat on Facebook and within minutes you can get dozens of “likes.” Publish a piece in a print journal and you’re lucky if you even hear from one reader who enjoyed your story.

When I’m dealing with strangers who ask for publishing advice, I just stay positive, encouraging, but when I’m talking to my own students, I can be a little tougher. This is what I tell them: I think the first questions, the questions that should come before “How can I get published?” are “How can I get as good as I can possibly get as a writer?” and “How can I learn more?” I tell them not to worry too much about publishing yet; publishing is the very last step, and in some ways it’s the least important. Getting better is the most important. It’s certainly what I care about with my own writing. I think if I only cared about publishing I’d have given up by now because of all the rejections over the years. But getting better, well, that’s something I can do on my own, something I can keep working on. I can keep studying published stories and novels I admire, I can keep revising and editing my own work, keep pushing myself to do better.

VI: Tumble On

So some final words of advice about publishing: Be patient and be persistent. Keep working on your stories until they’re as strong as you can make them before you send them out. Don’t worry if you’re turning seventeen or twenty-seven or eighty-seven and you haven’t published yet. Let’s go back to the rock tumbler. Let’s turn it into a metaphor. Think of your stories as those rocks that go into the tumbler. They’re dull and dirty when they start, but give them time and steady attention and what happens? They go from rocks to gems. Don’t send your writing out until you’ve worked on it over and over again, scraping away what’s not working, polishing every sentence. Be patient, give yourself all the time you need, and don’t send your work out until it shines.

LOUISA MEETS BEAR is an impressive novel-in-stories that follows family and friends across 25 years and two continents

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G: June 9, 2015

304 pages, $26.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

Fathers’ Day favorites: 12 Novels by Women for the Men in Your Life

In honor of Fathers’ Day, I’ve compiled a list of novels by women that fathers (well, men in general, actually) should like. One of my objectives in starting this blog was to encourage men to read more fiction by women. I don’t think I’ve succeeded, but it’s a battle worth continuing to fight.

The following novels feature compelling characters  (both men and women), involving plots, a powerful sense of time and place, enough action to satisfy the typical male’s requirement that “something happens,” and that certain something that just makes me think they would appeal to guys.

Sparta cover art  Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Sparta — Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta  may well go down as the definitive depiction of the costs of war paid on the home front. In a gripping third person narrative, Robinson shadows Conrad Farrell upon his return from four years of front-line duty in Iraq. Sparta moves back and forth in time from Conrad’s tour of duty to his return home.

But the core of the story concerns his attempts to cope with PTSD, reestablish his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend Claire, and to reintegrate into a civilian world that he finds mystifying and occasionally even infuriating. He has left some crucial part of himself behind in Iraq and struggles to find his true self again. To an observer he appears to be the ideal American warrior specimen, but inside he is psychologically and emotionally shattered.

The last section of the book is something of a page-turning thriller, as the reader wonders what Conrad will do to solve what appear to him to be overwhelming and unsolvable difficulties. If I had to choose one novel about the experience of Iraq War veterans coming home that will still be read in 20 years — and likely considered a modern classic — it would be Sparta. It is required reading for anyone who cares about the human costs of war.

Hundred Year House paperback  Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai

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.

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.

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.

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We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace. McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

The Tusk That Did the Damage  Tania-James-1024x682-MelissaStewartPhotography

The Tusk That Did the Damage — Tania James

Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished. It is a masterful work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that will hold most readers spellbound.

James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.

Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.

The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).

Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.

James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.

Friendswood  Rene Steinke

Friendswood — Rene Steinke

Rene Steinke, author of the 2005 National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts, has returned to the literary scene after nearly a decade with a timely and absorbing novel. Friendswood explores two issues that are seemingly discrete but are actually intertwined: corporate polluters turning a residential neighborhood into a toxic waste site and sexual abuse by high school athletes in a small town that worships football. In both cases, the immoral and possibly illegal behavior of privileged actors is indulged by the majority, who value economic growth and athletic prowess over questioning their way of life, the choices they make, and the cost of both.

The narrative is shared by four characters. Lee is a mother turned single-minded environmental activist when her teenage daughter Jess dies from a strange cancer. Jess’s death eventually drove Lee and her husband apart; now her life revolves around her part-time job in a doctor’s office and monitoring the adjacent property, the site of a former refinery. When she discovers that the site is belching toxins from the soil again, Lee moves from vigilant to vigilante.

Hal is a former mediocre high school athlete struggling to make a living in real estate; he is living vicariously through the athletic exploits of his son, Cully, and hoping that a recent religious rebirth will save him, his business, and his wilting marriage. Willa is a 15-year-old student with an artistic streak and an eccentric persona that doesn’t fit easily into the culture of this small town located between Houston and the Gulf. Dex is a classmate of Willa and Cully with more on his mind than just football and girls. Their lives intersect in ways they could not predict, even though readers probably can.

Time has passed since the toxic cleanup and town leaders believe part of the former refinery property is safe for new residential development. Big shot developer and former football star Avery Taft wants to bring this project to fruition, and Hal is desperate to persuade Taft to retain him for his realtor services. Lee has discovered worrisome materials during her nocturnal prowling behind the fences and attempts to alert the few influential people who are sympathetic to her unpopular obsession. Dex develops a romantic interest in Willa, as Cully begins to see her as an easily manipulated potential conquest.

Steinke grew up in the actual Friendswood, Texas, and she knows small towns and their residents well; she knows that football, religion, and the oil business are often the Holy Trinity in such places.

Kind of Kin  Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin — Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin author Rilla Askew deserves high praise for managing to explore the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

The novel’s protagonist is Georgia “Sweet” Kirkendall. Her father, Bob Brown, a taciturn but respected local mainstay in the tiny town of Cedar, Oklahoma, has been arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn, to the surprise and disappointment of friends and family. Even more strange is the fact that he refuses to hire a lawyer or put up a defense.

His parentless grandson, 10-year-old Dustin, is forced to stay with Sweet, who is already struggling with her own son, a young bully named Carl Albert, and her husband, who works long hours out of town and has grown emotionally distant from Sweet and Carl Albert. At the same time, Luis Celayo has entered the U.S. illegally to search for his long-lost sons, who went north to work. The plot is enriched considerably by the fact that Sweet’s niece, Misty, is married to an illegal alien who has been deported but has made his way back into the country. Then Dustin disappears, and the hunt for him drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

While on paper the plot may sound melodramatic, it does not read that way. Instead, it comes across as a realistic depiction of the many lives affected by the political decisions made on the issue of immigration and immigrants’ rights. The narrative is fast-moving, the various viewpoints are woven together smoothly and logically, and the characters act like real people, not cardboard cut-outs intended to stand in for points in a political or legal argument.

Kind of Kin is a deeply involving story whose headlong momentum makes you turn the pages faster as the novel progresses. Kind of Kin would make a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to chew on within its 400 pages of powerful prose. For everyone else, it is worthy of this high praise: It is a terrific, thought-provoking book that you won’t be able to put down or soon forget.


The Home Place — Carrie La Seur

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to a small college outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral.  Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business.

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billing, “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced.


The Bees — Laline Paull

The Bees combines the best traits of a thriller, a character study, a hero’s quest, and a dystopian fantasy to powerful effect Just as Richard Adams made readers care deeply about a warren of rabbits in his 1973 classic, Watership Down (perhaps the best novel for adults featuring anthropomorphized animals), Laline Paull’s The Bees will have readers worrying about the many threats, both external and internal, to the members of one hive in an English orchard.

Flora 717 is a dutiful member of the sanitation workers, the lowest caste in the hive, when it is discovered that she can speak (the “flora kin” group is mute). For her part, Flora is deeply conflicted between her genetic predisposition to “Accept, Obey, and Serve” (the workers’ mantra) and her rational and critical mind, which causes her to question, disobey, and ultimately lead.

As she demonstrates her intelligence, bravery, and devotion to the Queen, she moves up literally and figuratively in the world of the hive. But her proximity to the Queen, the Priestesses, and the drones makes her privy to knowledge she would be better off not knowing. Before long, Flora has become a threat to the Queen in a way she could never have imagined.

Beyond its intense and exciting plot, The Bees is distinguished by its well-drawn and credible characters. On one hand, Flora is consciously reluctant to follow her own path, for nothing could be less like a bee, yet she is compelled to take certain actions, as if her mind is being controlled by a force greater than herself.

The novel’s other noteworthy accomplishment is the way Paull has seamlessly incorporated a wealth of fascinating information about bees without bogging down the narrative. Her background in screenwriting has resulted in a cinematic thriller with several scenes you are unlikely to forget. The Bees begs to be turned into a movie; the question is whether the CGI experts will dare to attempt it.

Paull has provided filmmakers with a riveting story featuring a gamut of memorable characters and a unique setting. In the meantime, readers have the opportunity to experience The Bees in the movie theater of their own mind.

Man Alive paperback 10-7-14  Mary Kay Zuravleff

Man Alive! — Mary Kay Zuravleff

We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.

Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.

In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings.  And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.

As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni?

Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Man Alive! is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.

River of Dust  Virginia Pye

River of Dust — Virginia Pye

One of the great joys of the reading life is the ability to travel to other times and places, to experience life among other peoples and cultures. Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, though not a joyful novel, offers those pleasures in abundance. River of Dust is a character study of a man of great faith enduring a spiritual crisis, a close examination of the dynamics in a young marriage, a suspenseful missing persons story, and a jaundiced travelogue.

A few years after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Reverend John Wesley Watson and his young wife, Grace, have been sent by the church to engage in missionary work in the small Chinese city of Fenchow-fu in the drought-stricken country northwest of Beijing. After making a name for himself building schools, roads, and a hospital, the Reverend (as he is called throughout the book) and Grace, along with their three-year-old son Wesley, move out of the missionary compound to a tumbledown house well outside of town. Before they can even move their bags into the house, a pair of Mongol bandits accosts them and kidnaps Wesley. The compelling plot of River of Dust is thus set in motion. Who are these men, why did they steal Wesley, and what do they want with him?

The Reverend becomes justifiably obsessed with hunting down the nomads and reclaiming his son. He sets out with his man, 60-year-old (but very capable) Ahcho, riding across the badlands in search of the bandits and young Wesley. Many Chinese mock the Reverend and his “Lord Jesus.” They call him “Ghost Man,” some with grudging respect, some sarcastically.

River of Dust is the story of this young couple’s encounter with a strange nation: its wide range of people, incomprehensible culture, and primitive religious superstitions. Like most imperialists, whether political or religious, the Watsons and their fellow missionaries believe they understand China and its people’s needs and that they can make a difference in their lives. They soon discover that this may not be the case. China is far more complex than they had imagined.

Pye has done a masterful job blending several elements into a story about sympathetic characters operating under the most challenging of circumstances. There is much here that will fascinate, surprise, and even shock the historically and culturally curious reader.

The Enchanted  Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld

There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the prisoners in a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel. But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation about finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.

The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of.  The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation. The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out.

It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.

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

Station Eleven — Emily St. John Mandel

In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world. Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and made the long-list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK). It was also a huge bestseller, proving that thought-provoking literary fiction can be embraced by mainstream readers.

Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a pillar onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.

Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.

The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life. Then we move forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.

Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter?

Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama. The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.

Other recommended novels:

The Untold — Courtney Collins

The Gods of Gotham — Lyndsay Faye

A Guide for the Perplexed — Dara Horn

Black River — S.M. Hulse

The Moor’s Account — Laila Lalami

The Cutting Season — Attica Locke

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin

The Half Brother — Holly McCraw

Jacob’s Folly — Rebecca Miller

The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt

THE SIXTEENTH OF JUNE explores intertwined lives in a single day

Sixteenth of June paperback  Maya Lang

The Sixteenth of June

By Maya Lang

Scribner: June 16, 2015

$16.00, 256 pages

This is a re-post of my original review from July 10, 2014. 

Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, is a closely observed examination of a family struggling to hold themselves together in the face of mounting pressure on the members to spin off in several directions. Set in Philadelphia on the title date in 2004, it begins with a funeral and ends with a party. Lang uses James Joyce’s often incomprehensible masterpiece, Ulysses, as partial inspiration for her novel’s day-in-the-life story of the Portman family as they prepare to bury the patriarch’s mother and, later, host their annual Bloomsday party in celebration of Joyce’s book, which takes place on June 16, 1904 in Dublin.

The story centers around the two brothers, Stephen and Leopold (Leo) Portman, and Leo’s fiancee, Nora, who was Stephen’s best friend in college before she met Leo. Although we get to know the brothers’ parents, Michael and June Portman, we experience the story through the minds and hearts of this romantic and platonic love triangle. Stephen is a brilliant but unfocused Yale graduate student, who is second guessing his plans and misses spending time with his kindred spirit, Nora. Leo is the seemingly shallow but practical man of action who wants only to marry Nora, settle down in the leafy Philly suburbs, and live a life of relative wealth and ease, highlighted by business success and season tickets to the Eagles.

Nora is a gifted young opera singer who is derailed by her mother’s drawn-out illness and death; she has walked away from a promising future in opera to sing jazz and gospel, which provide her with rare peace of mind. The engagement of Leo and Nora strikes Stephen as ill-advised; he insists he is not in love with Nora, but simply misses their friendship. Nora has her own occasional doubts about her intellectual and emotional compatibility with Leo, although Nora defends Leo against Stephen’s doubts.

Michael Portman has attempted to escape his working class Jewish immigrant upbringing through business success and his marriage to the patrician June, who has unfailingly good taste in all things, but little more. In Stephen’s view, “June lives in a perfumed cloud of associations and hints. She deals in allusions, pleasantries, subtly exchanged looks.”

At the Bloomsday party that evening, Stephen’s department adviser comments that Michael and June’s desire to love the challenging writing of James Joyce show humility. “Stephen nearly chokes on his drink. ‘Humility! My mother probably thinks that’s a brand of perfume.’”

In one scene, Leo points out to Nora that her mother, despite her failings, is an actual mother, something he never had. Stephen observes that “[h]is parents preached a life of liberal acceptance. They sought the life they read about in the New Yorker and the Times, where tolerance and higher education and art are virtues. But they wanted it on their own terms.”

The Sixteenth of June is about the stories we tell ourselves and others, both about ourselves and about others, in an effort to get through the day. If we are ever to be happy, we must at the very least tell ourselves the truth. Lang shows us in this one day that life-altering moments can occur in the midst of our mundane existence. Epiphanies strike when we least expect them. An observation, a word or phrase read or heard, a thought in the thicket of pondering, a memory can all produce the lightning bolt of realization. Stephen, Leo, and Nora all reach crucial decisions about how to live their lives by the end of the day.

Although this is a “talky” novel, Lang has a gift for capturing what is left unsaid. It’s not quite “stiff upper lip” English reserve, but much of what is thought and felt by the main characters is left unexpressed, with both beneficial and detrimental effects on the other characters.

While one could argue that nothing very exciting happens on this particular June day, Lang’s polished prose results in a narrative that sails along on a gentle but steady breeze, making it a relatively fast read. There is a stimulating intelligence at work on every page, rewarding the reader with pithy insights and observations, sparkling or sharp-edged dialogue, and a reflective but slightly bemused tone. Despite how internal The Sixteenth of June can be at times, it never crawls into its own navel or lets the characters’ occasional ennui turn the story into a sluggish tale of a self-pitying “one percent” family.

Lang’s love of Joyce’s legendarily frustrating Ulysses is clear. At the Portmans’ Bloomsday party, as Stephen and his adviser briefly discuss Joyce and his readers, Stephen points out, “But that’s the thing. Joyce fans can never keep it to themselves. People who tell you they love Ulysses — they wear it like it’s a badge.”

His adviser replies that “Joyce meant for his work to be a challenge. He didn’t want it to be the shy girl at the party…. Ulysses was never meant to seduce us gently. Joyce wanted it to confound.”

Stephen remains unconvinced. “Why can’t writers just come out and say what they mean? Has sincerity gone out of style? I wonder if we’ve become too clever for our own good.”

“Novelists should have ambition!” Stuart insists. “They should aim for the fences. This is what one must applaud with Joyce. His work is Everest. Do you see? No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it. It’s an accomplishment! We discover something meaningful in the climb precisely because of how it pushes us. It is a feat to read Ulysses, just as Joyce intended. There are challenges and wonders at every turn.”

That is as compelling an argument in favor of challenging literature as one is likely to encounter.

There are countless parallels and in-jokes relating to Joyce’s Ulysses in The Sixteenth of June, but it is not necessary to have read, or even to be familiar with, Joyce’s book to understand and enjoy Lang’s novel. Leopold Bloom is the main character in Ulysses. Stephen is named after Stephen Dedalus from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who reappears in Ulysses. (The Portmans’ dog is named Dedalus.) Nora, is named for Joyce’s wife. (Like the real Nora, the fictional character comes from a middle class upbringing that intrigues Leo, who prefers the earthiness and practicality of Nora’s life to the sterile, status-conscious world he was brought up in.) Lang has also incorporated lines directly from Ulysses into every chapter of her book. Fans of Ulysses will find The Sixteenth of June both an involving read and something of a treasure hunt.

For the rest of us (let’s admit it, the non-Ulysses group is 99.9% of readers), The Sixteenth of June is a worthy effort on its own merits. These are three-dimensional characters that you will care about, learn from, and wish well. I’m still thinking (and worrying) about Stephen, Leo, and Nora.