Guest blogger Patry Francis: My first bookstore

Patry Francis

Patry Francis is a three time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and has twice been the recipient of a fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her latest book, The Orphans of Race Point, was published by Harper Perennial on May 6 to strongly positive reviews by critics and readers alike. It was chosen as a featured  alternate selection in the Late Spring cycle of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Book of the Month Club, and Mystery Guild. The Boston Globe chose The Orphans of Race Point as a “Summer Read” recommended for those who like Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and is the July book club pick for MomAdviceHer first novel, The Liar’s Diary, has been translated into seven languages and was optioned for film. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.         

Usually, when I give an author talk, I start by describing the bookstore I used to visit every Saturday from the time I was about fourteen. Initially, it seemed like a somewhat arbitrary way to begin, but one of the great truths that writing reveals is that every time we open a notebook or a new document, the subconscious reveals obsessions and truths we never knew we possessed, and they are rarely arbitrary. Every revision, or in this case retelling, makes that more clear.

But back to that bookstore. In a city of a hundred thousand, it was the only one we had and it sold used books. My father said it was a front for a local bookie, which may have explained the disarray I encountered when I walked down the cement steps to the basement level where it was housed, and the air of preoccupation exuded by the proprietor. He chain smoked while he talked on the phone, allowing what was often his sole customer the run of the place. The disorganized stacks of paperbacks that cluttered the aisles and lined the musty bookshelves might have turned others away, but I entered the store in the spirit of an excavator, and never left without a great find.

When I first found myself talking about a place I hadn’t consciously remembered in decades, I focused on its seedy location and how I’d once been frightened by a man drinking from a paper bag under a bridge along the route. “What are you looking for down here, little girl?” he asked as he lunged toward me. I can still remember the fear I felt as I ran away. However, his question has also remained.

Did I know myself what drove me to walk under that bridge every Saturday, with a couple of dollars in my pocket? That bookstore, I told my audiences, was what had made me a writer.

However, as I continued to repeat the story in the various libraries and bookstores that were kind enough to have me, I saw something more clearly than the face of the man who had frightened me under the bridge. I saw the tattered covers of several books I’d discovered there, the price marked in the corner in heavy black ink:

Franny and Zooey with its no-frills white cover: 35 cents. That led me to the library where I discovered the rest of Salinger’s work.

A musty, waterstained copy of Les Miserables: 10 cents. It is still among my favorite novels.

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was unmarked, and when I asked the price, the owner flipped through the pages. “Hell, it’s poetry,” he said, pushing it at me. “If you want to read that crap, you can have it.” I still do.

I spent a dollar on an almost new copy of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Though I don’t remember much of it now, there are a dozen mentions in my adolescent journals about how it changed my life.

I wasn’t sure what Man’s Search for Meaning was about, but I knew I needed it. The slim mass market paperback was in less than pristine condition, so I haggled with the owner over the price.  Though he was usually willing to negotiate, this time he set his cigarette down in the ashtray and leaned over the counter. “Priced as marked,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want it, put it back on the shelf–right where you found it, too.” As if the store had a some secret order, after all.

The pages of that book are yellow now and marked with underlinings in various inks that mark different stages in my life, but I still have that one, too. Even the price on the cover remains: 75 cents.

I had probably told the story of my first bookstore a dozen times before I realized why it had returned to me now, and what it had to do with my novel. Clearly, I had been drawn to certain themes and questions all my life. The adolescent angst Salinger depicts so well, the rage against abandonment in Plath, the belief that our essential goodness can triumph even in the worst situations which I found both in Hugo and Frankel, all show up in The Orphans of Race Point.

I rarely write autobiographical fiction, but there is a reason we are drawn repeatedly to the same thematic landscapes, whether they’re drawn directly from experience or not. Like much of the creative process, it often remains one of the mysteries of the unconscious–at least for me. But every time I relive the walk to my first bookstore, and walk down the stairs to the subterranean room where a literary excavator unearthed so much of herself, I get a little closer.

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THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI wins 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

Helene Wecker  Golem and Jinni

Helene Wecker has been named the winner of the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for her debut, The Golem and the Jinni (published in May 2013). Wecker’s captivating supernatural novel was chosen over two other outstanding first novels, Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon (Simon and Schuster) and Fort Starlight by Claudia Zuluaga (Engine Books). [Read my review and interview.]

The Golem and the Jinni was selected from over 110 debut novel submissions, following a year-long reading period by a group of volunteer readers and a panel of judges. A group of twelve semi-finalists was announced on May 13, with the three finalists announced on May 28.

The prize includes a $5,000 cash award and participation in a three-day First Novelist Festival at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in the fall. The date of the awards ceremony remains to be determined.

The most recent winners include Ramona Ausubel in 2013 for No One is Here Except All of Us and Justin Torres in 2012 for We the Animals.

Yoon’s novel won the 2014 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award on June 9 (in a crowded field including Matt Bell, Jennifer duBois, Anthony Marra, and Chinelo Okparanta).

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LIFE DRAWING a suspenseful examination of a marriage after betrayal

Life Drawing  Robin Black by Marion Ettlinger

Life Drawing

By Robin Black

Random House; July 15, 2014

$25.00, 241 pages

“There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Life Drawing is a ticking time bomb of a book that tells the story of a couple in their late-40s  trying to rebuild their marriage after a betrayal. Augusta (Gus) and Owen Edelman are a painter and novelist, respectively, who have moved to a farmhouse in the countryside west of Philadelphia to work on stabilizing their relationship without the distractions or stresses of life in the city.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that Gus had an affair with the father of one of her art students before breaking it off and confessing everything to Owen. From the start, we are curious to learn why Gus cheated on Owen, and why he chose to stay with Gus and change their living situation to one where they are alone in their farmhouse bubble, which arguably would only increase the pressure. Gus is, not surprisingly, wracked with guilt and is extremely solicitous of Owen’s emotional and artistic needs as she attempts to patch up the ongoing work that is their marriage.

Gus explains the nature of their relationship at this time: “It is a kind of solitude that continues even when Owen is standing beside me. It is a solitude that includes him. We are apart from the rest of the world. We are invisible to it. We have become by this time a single being, a being that argues with itself from time to time — as a knee may ache, as a tired back might refuse to cooperate, so you say, Oh for God’s sake, could you stop being so difficult; but you are saying it to a part of yourself.”

In the three years they have lived in the country, Gus and Owen have settled into a routine, both personal and creative. Gus works on her paintings, while Owen battles a long-term case of writer’s block. The remodeled barn serves as his writing studio, where he is not to be disturbed as he wrestles with his work. Their relationship ebbs and flows as they slowly and carefully try to re-establish their trust and love.

They are surprised when Alison Hemmings, a charming and attractive British woman of about their age, rents the long-empty house just over a small hill from the Edelmans’ farmhouse. She is shattered from her ex-husband’s physical and emotional abuse and is seeking a refuge for the summer to pick up the pieces and work on her own amateur paintings. Allison is warm and friendly, but it quickly becomes clear that, as with any third party to a relationship, her presence is a catalyst that will alter the delicate chemistry between Gus and Owen. Before long, Alison’s daughter Nora, a recent college graduate who is equally attractive and outgoing, comes to visit for the Labor Day weekend.

Complications ensue, and Life Drawing becomes both an intensely examined character study and something of a suspense novel.

Black uses the triangle of Owen, Gus, and Alison to examine marriage, motherhood versus remaining childless, and the place of artistic expression in creating personal and marital contentment. She is a remarkably astute observer of domestic life and its complications, both apparent and hidden. We live inside Gus’s head for the few months during which the story takes place, as she tries to win back Owen’s trust (it’s clear that he still loves her deeply), build a close friendship with Alison to reduce her sense of emotional and physical isolation, and manage her own web of emotions — guilt, regret, love, desire — and artistic challenges.

The last of these is explored through Gus’s latest project, a series of paintings depicting local boys who were killed in World War I; the soldiers are relaxing in various spots in the Edelman farmhouse, appearing to be halfway between life and death. While Gus is a gifted painter of settings and exquisite inanimate details, she has always struggled with figures, incorporating people into her scenes in a way that satisfies her. If she is to achieve her artistic goal with these paintings, it appears she will need a class in Life Drawing. The analogy to her personal life is clear.

Black brilliantly depicts the couple’s complicated dance around their marital and artistic problems. Her elegant sentences, polished language, and insight into the subtleties of expectation and communication in a marriage create a hovering cloud of foreboding. We are told in the opening sentences that something heartbreaking has happened, and Black holds us spellbound as she takes us back in time so we can see how it came to pass. Yet I suspect that most readers will still be surprised by how the story of Gus and Owen, and Alison and Nora, ultimately plays out.

Marriage, friendship, and parenthood are fraught with challenges and pitfalls, yet they are the experiences that give our lives meaning. With Life Drawing, Robin Black shows us that these relationships are our true life’s work and, potentially, our greatest creative achievements.

Photo of Robin Black by Marion Ettlinger

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Brittani Sonnenberg on Home Leave: “Certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel”

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg’s first novel, Home Leave, was published on June 3 by Grand Central Publishing. It is the story of the peripatetic Kriegstein family (parents Chris and Elise and their daughters, 16-year-old Leah and 14-year-old Sophie) and their experiences living abroad in Hamburg, London, Shanghai, and Singapore. It is a complex exploration of the various relationships in this one small family, the nature of home, and the impact of a family tragedy on those left behind. Sonnenberg’s writing possesses a sophistication and insight that makes readers sit up and take notice. The opening chapter is as brilliant and clever a piece of writing as I’ve read in a long while (and will no doubt be widely anthologized, as it can stand on its own quite nicely).

Sonnenberg studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. She lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. Her award-winning fiction has been 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.

Home Leave appears to be autobiographical, at least in the sense that you lived in some of the places that are featured in the book. How do you decide which personal experiences to make use of in fiction? Do certain experiences seemingly make that decision for you? And how do you then decide how much to rework the truth into fiction?

I think that’s exactly the way to describe how it felt to write Home Leave: certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel. At other times, I would be working on an utterly fictional passage, and a tiny autobiographical sliver would insert itself. Before I began the novel, I wrote a memoir that I ultimately put in the proverbial drawer: something wasn’t coming together with it. But I still had a deep urge to continue exploring the memoir’s material (an American family overseas, a sibling’s sudden death) in fiction. It didn’t feel like “reworking the truth” since the novel’s chapters, as they came to me, felt fresh in their fictional forms. But I suppose in some corner of my brain I was reworking the truth in a playful way, like a kid playing dress up, trying out different costumes and props.

I lived in Honolulu from ages 10-12 and it had a profound effect on me (although it wasn’t a foreign country, it felt like one to me). What are your thoughts on living in a foreign country as a child? Do you think everyone should do that?

I think it makes a lot of sense that living in Hawaii at such an impressionable time changed you deeply. I think living overseas as a child is both a privilege and a burden: you’re exposed to a profoundly different way of living and thinking and being, but it also jostles your notion of where home is and who you are. I recently conducted an interview with several writers who have settled overseas as adults, who all claimed that this “outsider status” as a foreigner can be crucial for writing and for gathering material. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

We hear and read a lot about parents coping with the death of a child, how they never get over it, understandably. But what is that loss like for a sibling? We don’t hear nearly as much about the long-term effects within that relationship.

It’s devastating for every family member, in different ways. For a sibling – at least for me – there was a lot of guilt about surviving my sister Blair, who was two years younger than me. And I felt horribly alone in the world without the sister that had shared so many worlds with me. I still ache from that missing, although now it’s a gentler throbbing than before.

Have you always known you were going to write about a death in the family? Or did it impose itself on you while you were trying to write about other subjects?

Several of my short stories involved the death of a loved one, but the novel was the first time I tried writing about the subject in a way that felt so “close to home.” It was difficult to write, but I felt the urge to deal directly with my family’s experience, rather than through an entirely fictionalized scenario.

How long did you work on Home Leave? Did it come to you slowly over time or in a vision, as it were?

Both. Home Leave took a long time to write, and it came out very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, I had worked on a memoir for a couple of years that I finally put aside. I started from scratch on a new fiction project that dealt with similar material, and ended up writing the novel in a little under two years. But the subject of a sibling’s death and an American family’s life overseas had been on my mind for many years, and one of the chapters is adapted from a short story I wrote in college.

How many drafts did you write before you reached the published version? Who helped you produce the book as published, and what was their contribution? 

My agent, Jenni Ferrari Adler, and another reader, a close friend of mine, helped me to revise the first draft. Jenni sold the second (or perhaps it was the third?) draft to Grand Central. Several chapters then went through major revisions with my editor at GC, Helen Atsma, and even my German editor, Ulrike Ostermeyer at Arche Verlag, helped a great deal with the chapters set in Berlin and Hamburg.

What experiences, as opposed to books, have shaped your perspective and voice as a writer?

Living overseas, especially in Shanghai, was an enormous influence. I also think my Southern heritage (my mother is from Mississippi) has affected how I view storytelling and humor. And my sister’s death has forced me to think a lot about mourning, grief, love, and family, and prompted me to investigate these themes in my fiction.

Are you part of any writers’ groups, for example a group of friends from your MFA days or organized writing groups? If so, what do they offer you as a writer?

Yes, I am. I have a casual writing group in Berlin that helped me with several chapters from the novel. I also have friends from my MFA program who I turn to for help, not only with manuscripts, but also just with the daily frustrations and quandaries of being a writer. And I have a good friend in the US – a fantastic writer who works as a psychiatrist – who I often consult.

Which of your stories would you recommend to someone who enjoyed Home Leave? Where can we find them? Do you have any plans for a story collection?

Thanks for asking! My short story “Hong Kong Buffet,” about a Chinese restaurant in Mississippi, was just published by Readux Books (a wonderful small press in Berlin), and is available as an e-book and a paperback; and my short story “Taiping” (which won a 2008 O. Henry Award) can be found online. I don’t have any current plans to go out with a short story collection, but I’ll keep you posted!

You are currently living in Berlin. Why did you decide to settle there? Is it a particularly good location for Americans? It seems as if it has become the new Paris for creative types.

In some ways, my decision to settle in Berlin was something of a coincidence; I was looking for a break from the Midwest (after graduate school in Michigan) and happened to visit Berlin and fall in love with the city. I do think it’s a good location for Americans – there are a lot of us over there, especially from Brooklyn! – but one thing I truly value about Berlin is its cosmopolitanism. It draws creative types from all over the world and it’s energizing to see so many people who are so excited to be there.

What is your writing routine (if you have one)? Where do you write? What five things do you need in order to write?

I try to write for about three hours a day, usually in the morning. I read a wonderful article on establishing a writing routine by Ellen Sussman in Poets and Writers a few years back that I’ve adopted (somewhat) and that’s helped me stay (somewhat) focused. I write mostly at home, but I also have a shared office space with other writers in Berlin that I recently joined. Five things I need in order to write: a window, relative quiet, a laptop, courage, and coffee.

What are your thoughts on the issue of gender bias in publishing (such as the issue of feminized cover art used on literary fiction by women and the imbalance of bylines and books reviewed)? Joyce Carol Oates recently noted that it seems unnecessary to have awards such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction when women are winning so many of the major awards (the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the Booker, etc.). Do you agree or disagree? Do we really need things like the VIDA Count (and, for that matter, a blog like Read Her Like an Open Book)?

This is a tough question. On the one hand, there is an objective disparity that needs to be addressed (and I feel like resources like VIDA and this blog call necessary attention to the issue). On the other hand, sometimes all the uproar drowns out the individual voices of the books and authors themselves. What everyone would prefer, of course, is a level playing field, but until we have that (and in order to get there), I think intermediary efforts are crucial.

Which authors and books are your primary influences?

Lots! But I’ll list a few…

Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time (my favorite childhood novel)

Eudora Welty “Why I Live at the P.O.” (short story)

Ha Jin “When Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” (short story)

V.S. Naipaul Reading and Writing: A Personal Account

Pretty much anything by Alice Munro

Rainer Maria Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad

What have you read recently that impressed you? Which authors and/or books deserve more attention?

I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

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What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer?

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. Inspired by a recent post on Robin Kall’s Reading with Robin blog, I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?

2. What are you currently reading?

3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the nine responses that follow, each of which includes a book or books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Check back later this week for the second installment of Authors’ Summer Reading, featuring Katie Crouch, Kimberly Elkins, Patry Francis, Mira Jacob, Dylan Landis, Rebecca Makkai,  Virginia Pye, and others. 

summer book preview clarke winspear morris lusbader mccollough o

Laura McBride

I really enjoyed Molly Wizenberg’s memoir Delancey and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I am loving Euphoria by Lily King right now, and I am looking forward to Long Man by Amy Greene, Funny Once by Antonya Nelson, and The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai.

[My review of We Are Called to Rise is here.]

Kahakauwila Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila

I just finished the novel The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translation by Anne McLean), a lyric meditation on what it means to be Colombian, on fate and death, and at the same time, it reads like a murder mystery.

I’m reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony right now. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me this long! She handles that close third so intimately that I’m taking notes for my own first person narration.

And finally, next up is Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. His nonfiction is thoughtful and lovely, so I’m looking forward to this first novel of his.

[My review of This is Paradise is here.]


Laline Paull

Recently impressed by Horses of God by Mahi Binebine (translated from the French by Lulu Norman, Serpent’s Tail Press). Brutal, elegant, truthful imagining of the life of a young suicide bomber, from beyond the grave. Eloquent and compassionate, it asserts how poverty, ignorance and inequality, ultimately breeds atrocity. Not a beach book.

Also impressed by Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Atlantic). Wonderful biographically accurate imagining of the life of E.M. (Morgan) Forster, before he wrote Passage to India. About class, empire, love, loss, and the mysterious alchemical process of writing. Believe it or not, a beach book – for me, anyway.

And I must mention the delightful The Vacationers by Emma Straub, and not just because of her amazing review of The Bees in the New York Times Review of Books – but because it is a sly delight, with characters as real and familiar as Armistead Maupin’s, and a delicate structure full of tension, pathos, and comic irony.  Loved it.

Next on my reading list: Her by Harriet Lane, and a lot of non-fiction research for my second novel, which I’m going to keep to myself for a bit.

And I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, as my 15-year-old daughter demanded I do, so that we could discuss it. Jodi Picoult does for emotions what Lee Child does for the thriller — just keeps you turning the pages. Not sure how much I loved it — but I most definitely did admire her story-telling ability, which is brilliant. And even though I resent it a little, because I wasn’t love-love-loving the book, I did actually cry.

[My review of The Bees is here.]

2013-07-10-JessicaBlau  Wonder Bread Summer

Jessica Anya Blau

I just read Let Me See It by James Magruder. Fabulous. Deeply sad but also very funny. About two gay men coming of age in the era of AIDS. I also just read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe. Charming, funny, and sweet letters written by a London nanny in the early 1980s.

Currently reading Patti Smith’s biography, Just Kids, and loving it. When I’m done I’ll be reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, The Signature of All Things.

[My review of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is here.]

qualities-of-wood-pb-   Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White 

A book that recently impressed me, and in my opinion did not receive nearly the attention it deserved when it was released in May of this year, is Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist. It’s a unique novel that reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Both novels get inside the mind of someone living by, for, and through books; both maintain a sort of nostalgia for words and stories and both speak to current state of affairs between burgeoning technology and the printed word. The story concerns Lena, the sole transcriptionist of a fictional newspaper. She spends her days mostly alone, transcribing stories that come over the wires, and she relates pretty much everything that happens to books she’s read. When a blind woman with whom she had a brief encounter is killed by zoo lions, Lena becomes determined to find out more about what happened. It’s a timely, multi-faceted novel that will appeal to anyone who has spent a life in books.

I’m currently reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but before you become too impressed with my erudite summer selection, I will tell you that I’m operating at about a 70% comprehension rate reading this book. I don’t know what the problem is—I had a minor in history, after all (!)—and normally love historical fiction. Maybe it’s the huge cast of characters, most of whom are named Anne, Mary, John or Thomas, or the way the book jumps from place to place. But it’s something about the style, too. In and out of Cromwell’s thoughts, confusing perspective, pesky pronouns. Every so often, a paragraph begins with “He” and I have no idea who she’s talking about. Most of the time, it’s Cromwell, but still, it drives me crazy. This book is a rollercoaster for me; there are times when I think it’s utterly brilliant and other times when I’m not sure how I’ll finish the next five pages.

Next up is book two in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, so hopefully, I’ll have found a groove with Mantel’s style by then.

[My review of The Qualities of Wood is here.]

Vanessa Blakeslee Train Shots

Vanessa Blakeslee

Last month I was in residence as an Edward F. Albee fellow and devoured several collections by Alice Munro that I’d never gotten to: Dear Life, The Beggar Maid, Runaway, The Moons of Jupiter. To me, Munro is always impressive for her time-jumps, her use of dreams and subplot devices, and the sheer breathtaking force of her characters’ illuminations. But The Beggar Maid impressed me the most, for how those stories could be read as distinctly separate but when assembled, achieve the effect of a novel so naturally, without a hint of strain. As someone who is wrestling with two different novel-in-stories projects for several years, I’m in awe.

I’m currently reading two books by Pamela Erens, The Understory and The Virgins, as a review assignment for Kenyon Review Online.

I’m eager to read Edan Lepucki’s California and the short stories of the Russian Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Bunin, which another writing fellow at the Albee Barn recently recommended. I’ll also be revisiting Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders for an upcoming podcast at The Drunken Odyssey with John King.

[My review of Train Shots is here.]

Sand Queen   Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

I have just finished Abide By Me, by Elizabeth Strout, a lovely novel about the evil powers of gossip and the struggles of a good if simple man to stay that way. Strout is very good and getting to the heart of people in a few swift strokes, and encapsulating the culture of a small town.

Right now, I’m reading Sabina Murray’s collection of stories about the Philippines in World War Two, called The Caprices. I’m truly impressed by how well she captures the sinister absurdity of war and how she brings to life this obscure part of history. She inhabits her male characters brilliantly, and every story shows off a different voice and tone. The book won the PEN Faulkner when it came out. I can see why.

Next up is Orphan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I was just in Istanbul and want to keep reading him.

[My review of Sand Queen is here.]

Ronlyn Domingue   the-chronicle-of-secret-riven

Ronlyn Domingue

Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne. So I’m blatantly giving attention to one of my best friends here. Mary writes in several genres, and her first poetry chapbook released this summer. It’s a spectacular mix of fairy tale retellings and a woman’s reflections about her mother. Author Jeannine Hall Gailey describes the poems as “at the nexus of science and mythology.”

The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is on my stack for research purposes. Along with the myths—written in a serious yet descriptive style—Graves includes the sources where he found the myths and comments to explain or expand on the narrative. Every time I pick it up, I keep thinking it’s time for us to evolve into a new era of myths without so much power-over, rape, and vengeance.

Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo. My mom gave me this book because I love bees. It makes for quirky, relaxing night reading and, as a bonus, lets me get some enjoyable research done at the same time. Fun fact…when bees fly, the sound of their wings makes the note B natural.

[My review of The Chronicle of Secret Riven is coming soon!]

An Unexpected Guest   Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi
Impressed, in an unfortunate way: I’ve read many excellent books this past year, but in early summer, I hit a rut where I managed to read five thoroughly disappointing novels in a row. The experience reminded me what a delicate balancing act writing fiction is.

I am currently reading an ARC of Michelle Bailat-Jones’s beautiful novel, Fog Island Mountains, winner of The Center for Fiction’s 2013 Christopher Doheny Award.

Pulling one book off my TBR shelf is scary, a bit like that old game Pick Up Sticks. Will they all tumble? I *think* next up will be Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

[My review of An Unexpected Guest is here.]


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THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS gives powerful voice to a silent minority

The Book of Unknown Americans  Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans

By Cristina Henriquez

Knopf — June 3, 2014

286 pages, $24.95

Some books are published at just the right time. While immigration has long been an important and contentious issue in the United States, the current situation with Central American child refugees playing out at our border makes Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans even more timely and relevant than it would have been if it had been published in the last few years. The broader immigration issues remain, and this riveting novel provides some context for moving forward.

Fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera has sustained a serious head injury and needs special treatment and schooling that are not available in her home state of Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents, Arturo and Alma Rivera have brought her to Wilmington, Delaware — of all places — after waiting a year for Arturo to receive a work visa. They have left most of their belongings behind and come to the U.S. with little more than hope and prayers for their formerly feisty daughter’s recovery. They share a run-down apartment building with neighbors from across Latin America, including the Toro family from Panama. We get to know Celia and Rafa Toro through the eyes of their sensitive teenage son, Mayor (“my-yor”), who is smitten with Maribel from the moment he sees the beautiful but shy new girl at the store.

The Riveras have their hands full trying to adapt to the strange world of the United States, not the least of which is learning English. Arturo works punishing hours in the dark at a mushroom “factory” across the state line in Pennsylvania (it seems he is always crossing a border). Alma has to overcome a few obstacles for Maribel to gain admission to the Evers School for students with special needs. Loneliness and homesickness are her frequent companions.

But the open hearts of a few people keep Alma afloat. She is befriended by Celia Toro, who serves as something of a guide to this perplexing new world — or at least to the neighborhood and Wilmington. Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is not a “normal” girl, but he finds that he likes her nonetheless, and they develop a special friendship as well. The two families become increasingly interconnected, for good and ill.

In addition to trying to make their way in the U.S., the characters deal with problems that are not just limited to immigrants. Alma is punished by her guilt over the accident that led to Maribel’s head injury. Alma and Arturo worry constantly about Maribel’s physical health and emotional well-being, including her friendship with Mayor. Celia wants to work, but Rafa is adamant that it is his job as the man to take care of his family.

A teenage bully with a surly manner and an omnipresent skateboard harasses Alma, Maribel, and Mayor (whom he also bothers at school). A snooty neighbor turns from a friend into a jealous gossip and passive-aggressive backbiter. Everyone is strapped for money during the difficult years of the recent Great Recession. And the relationships among the building’s other residents display the universal characteristics of such relationships anywhere.

Consistent with the novel’s title, the chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of Alma Rivera and Mayor Toro. Short narratives from their neighbors are interwoven to create a tapestry of perspectives through which we experience the dreams and ambitions of these immigrants from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Mexico. While the details (and the language) may be different from past waves of immigrants, their daily lives in most ways constitute the universal immigrant experience that exists in virtually every American’s family history.

The feeling of being an immigrant, or the American-born child of immigrants, is captured brilliantly in The Book of Unknown Americans. Mayor describes the feeling of being caught between two cultures when he says, “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was [Panamanian or American]. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt [being American] and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim [being Panamanian].” When the Riveras go out to an inexpensive pizza parlor, Alma observes, “[A]round us American couples and families ate slices of pizza and drank bottles of beer. I had the feeling that they disapproved of us being there, drinking only water, taking up space. But when I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

As a lifelong California resident, I was particularly impressed by the accuracy of the short narrative of Micho Alvarez. “I came from Mexico,” he begins. “But there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? And if they say, yeah, I went to Acapulco back in the day or I been to Cancun, papi, then that shit don’t count. You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico.”

He then addresses the broader, more problematic issue. “And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans. You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy America, we still think Texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. I swear to God, I’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. Happens to me all the time.”

When he is watched closely in stores, he says, “I have enough money to be in any store and even if I didn’t, I have the right to be in any store. I feel like telling them sometimes, You don’t know me, man. I’m a citizen here! But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt….I wish just one of these people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. And yes, you can talk to us in English. I know English better than you, I bet. But none of them even want to try. We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then? It’s fucked up. The whole thing is very, very complicated.”

Cristina Henriquez has produced a powerful and moving portrayal of the lives of people we rarely hear from, the “unknown Americans” (all of the characters are legal immigrants). Her decision to use multiple first-person narrators adds an immediacy to the reading experience that makes this a very fast read. The various voices are idiosyncratic and credible and provide a quick glimpse into the range of life experiences possessed by immigrants. The narratives of Alma and Mayor, which make up the bulk of the book, are especially thoughtful and revealing.

Henriquez has smoothly handled the fact that the characters are obviously speaking Spanish to each other most of the time. In that sense, their narratives have been “translated.” Some speak English well, but others do not (depending on how long they have been in the U.S.). But when it’s clear they are speaking English (either to each other or to English speakers), they make second language errors and use bits of Spanish when they don’t know the word in English, adding credibility to the characterization.

The Book of Unknown Americans is not a polemic dressed up as a novel. It’s a compelling story of sympathetic characters in challenging circumstances, both personal and socio-cultural. They are people you will care about and whom you will miss when you close the book. And they might even make you think about the “very, very complicated” times in which we live

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Nadine Gordimer, Nobel-Prize winning South African, dies at 90

Nadine Gordimer

Burger's Daughter  julys people                                 The Conservationist   life times - nadine gordimer

Nadine Gordimer was a giant among living writers. Her career as a novelist, story writer, essayist, and anti-apartheid activist lasted 65 years (her debut story collection was published in 1949). She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 (the year apartheid laws were repealed and a year after Nelson Mandela was released from prison). Gordimer also received the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist.

Below are links to three excellent pieces about her life and work: stories from the New York Times and NPR and a personal tribute by Margaret Atwood from The Guardian. It would be difficult to choose just one book, but if you haven’t read anything by Gordimer, you could start with the novels The Burger’s Daughter (1979),  July’s People (1981), and The House Gun (1998), or the career-spanning collection Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 (2010).

New York Times

The Guardian


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