Richly plotted FRIENDSWOOD probes small town’s toxic tensions

Friendswood  Rene Steinke

Friendswood

By Rene Steinke

Riverhead Books: Aug. 14, 2014

354 pages, $27.95

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.

The two plot strands overlap in the sense that each involves predators steadily moving toward their distracted prey, while one good-hearted person  attempts to intervene to save them. Lee tries to save another round of innocent victims from the health hazards of living near a toxic site. Dex tries to save Willa from the sexual predators and opportunists on the football team, as well as from the town’s illusions about her. In the midst of this, Willa is having terrifying visions straight out of Revelations and struggling to interpret their meaning.

As the narrative progresses, the various plots and subplots become more tightly wound, eventually resulting in a single intertwined thread. Steinke has written a book with engaging characters who are trying to achieve their goals; occasionally they come across as somewhat stereotyped but not to the extent that it undermines the story or its message. You may feel that you’ve met these people before, if not in real life, at least in other books or movies. 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. (I happen to teach in just such a town in Central California.)

Friendswood tells a compelling story that maintains interest and tension throughout. It will leave you haunted by what was and what could have been.

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TRAIN SHOTS a dark and riveting collection of lives on the edge

This review was originally posted on February 11. With the many new readers this blog has picked up since then, I thought it would be appropriate to post it again. Books this good deserve a wide audience. Go buy a copy. 

Train Shots  Vanessa-Blakeslee-Author-Talk

Train Shots

By Vanessa Blakeslee

Burrow Press

March 4, 2014

$15.99

It has been a remarkable couple of years for short stories. And 2014 is off to an auspicious start with Molly Antopol’s accomplished collection, The UnAmericans and, in early March, Vanessa Blakeslee’s dark and probing debut collection, Train Shots.

As with so many recent books by first-time authors, they arrive seemingly out of nowhere with their artistic vision fully formed. Not surprisingly, these “overnight successes” have been polishing their craft for years, leaving bite marks in their pencils and typing the paint off their computer keyboards. Story by story, they have been publishing their work in literary journals both prestigious and obscure.

Blakeslee, originally from Pennsylvania but now based in central Florida, presents characters who are trying to figure out why their lives, and life in general, are hard to control. They are beaten down by bad breaks, selfish strangers, and the inevitable suffering that comes with being human. Yet they struggle to make sense of themselves and others, to find a purpose despite their loneliness, grief, broken heart, or lost opportunities. While Blakeslee’s stories are dark, they are not unremittingly so, and the reader will find it difficult not to root for these characters to sort things out, just as one does when one’s friends are having a rough time crossing from the past-haunted present to the waiting future.

Several of the stories take place in Florida, which Blakeslee obviously knows intimately, but two intriguing stories are set in Costa Rica. “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” perhaps the highlight of the collection, tells the story of an expatriate rancher whose older husband has returned to Florida to die of Parkinson’s. They had run an animal shelter but had sold out when she couldn’t bear putting the dogs in cages. After a year, she begins to save some of the local strays, building a large dog pen on the ranch, where they will have “room to run, to live.” When the dogs are stolen one night — something she finds inexplicable and infuriating — she is determined to find the thieves and reclaim “her” dogs. But she is not in the U.S., and the local customs do not favor her endeavor. Eventually, she decides to escape to her son’s finca (ranch estate) in an isolated corner of Nicaragua. They encounter poor agricultural workers stealing wood from a prime spot on his property, despite his previous attempts to allow them to take cut wood from another part of the finca. Together, these two experiences with life in a poor country teach her a valuable lesson about possession and loss.

The opening “Clock-In” features a monologue in which the narrator explains to a new waitress everything she will need to know, from the menu and customer service to dealing with the kitchen staff and dubious managers. “Uninvited Guests” explores the archaic situation when a single woman rents a carriage house apartment from an older minister. Set in the Florida hamlet of Eatonville, where Zora Neale Hurston was raised, this story is distinguished by a coiled tension as the renter and her intrusive and moralistic landlord play a game of cat and mouse over her visitors.

“Princess of Pop” puts readers inside the high pressure, paparazzi-chased life of a superstar singer. She has left her home in Beverly Hills to check into the hotel in Hollywood where Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in October 1970. She unplugs the phone, spills her bottles of Xanax and Ambien onto the bed, and takes a slug from a bottle of warm Grey Goose vodka.

At one point, having connected the phone, she takes a call from the front desk. “The front desk clerk told her the hotel was concerned with the media vans and trucks crowding the parking lot, and asked how long she planned to stay. ‘Why do I have to leave?’ she said. ‘You have my credit card, so swipe it.’

“‘It’s just that your presence is creating a disturbance for the other guests,’ the clerk said. ‘But of course, you may stay as long as you like.’

“‘I’ll be checking out shortly,’ she replied. Her voice was almost a whisper. She hung up. Your presence is creating a disturbance. She repeated that line to herself as she ate dry handfuls of Fruit Loops. Once again, she poured out the pills and divided them into two piles. Your presence is creating a disturbance.

“Train Shots,” which concludes the collection, concerns P.T., a freight train engineer who is already reeling from a breakup with his longtime girlfriend and two train track suicides when a young girl in a dress, another suicide, is struck by his train despite his efforts to stop. The police cordon off the scene, CSX finds a replacement engineer to finish the route, and P.T. is put up in a posh hotel for the night until he can catch the train home in the morning.

“‘How nice of the company to look out for you after something so terrible,’ [the desk clerk] said. ‘Will you be getting some time off?’

“‘I just came off leave,’ he said. ‘Third person killed in four months. With lots of deer in between.’”

“She stared and slid the room key over.”

P.T. goes up to his room and decides to call Shelley, “who still didn’t feel like his ex.”

“‘Aren’t you supposed to be driving right now?’ she asked.

“‘I killed someone today,’ he said. ‘A woman. Really young. All dressed up and stretched out on the track.’

“‘Oh, geez,’ she said, sighing. ‘I’m sorry. But please stop saying that you killed someone. She killed herself. That’s all there is to it. For you it’s an accident.’

‘How is it an accident? I don’t believe in that word anymore. Not lately.’

He walks around the leafy business and entertainment district near the hotel and eventually finds himself in a dive bar near the tracks, crowded with college students. It is here that he learns about the restaurant’s trademark “train shots” of tequila. It takes a late night, drunken conversation with the police officer who worked the accident scene, in which he shares some hard-won wisdom about death, for P.T. to approach a possible resolution for his broken heart.

The other stories are equally involving, with believable characters, a strong sense of place, crisp dialogue, telling details, and a nicely controlled narrative drive. Each story bristles with energy and the potential for beauty or destruction, and only turning the pages will reveal which one. Blakeslee writes with a confidence and panache that will carry readers through this collection in a few gulps. When you’re finished reading The UnAmericans, move on to Train Shots; you’ll be encountering two of the best “new” American writers.

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Author Paulette Livers on How NOT to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.

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Women sweep inaugural Kirkus Book Prizes; Lily King wins fiction award for EUPHORIA

Lily King

Lily King was named the winner of the first Kirkus Prize for fiction for her fourth novel, Euphoria, based on an incident in the life of groundbreaking anthropologist Margaret Mead. In a ceremony held in Austin on October 23, Kirkus Reviews, a publishing trade magazine much relied-upon by booksellers, critics, and others for its advance reviews, awarded prizes for Fiction, Nonfiction, and Young People’s Literature. [My review of Euphoria is here. Lily King's essay on her uniquely hand-crafted writing process, published just this Monday, Oct. 20, is here.]

Roz Chast, a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker, won the Nonfiction prize for her illustrated memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Her book made the shortlist for the National Book Award, which will be awarded on November 15.

Kate Samworth won the Young People’s Literature award for her unique creation, Aviary Wonders, Inc: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, in which readers can order a custom-made bird.

The three authors will each receive a $50,000 prize, one of the richest in literature.

The judges raved about Euphoria, lauding its “perfect construction, its economy and originality, and its fearlessness.” Chast’s memoir stood out for its  “heartbreaking beauty” and her use of “cartoons, family photos, sketches, documents and text to explore a profoundly human issue: the death of one’s parents.” And Samworth’s inventive book, intended for children 8-11 years old was called “by far one of the most creative books we have ever encountered.”

Kirkus fiction editor Laurie Muchnick explained that the fiction prize judges “wanted to find a book that they could recommend to everybody they knew, one they all loved and that they wanted to press on people.”

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“Pencil and Paper” — Author Lily King on her hand-crafted creative process

Lily King

Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at several universities and high schools in this country and abroad.

Lily’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award. It was translated into several languages.

Lily’s new novel, Euphoria, was released in June 2014. [Read my review here.] It has won the New England Book Award for Fiction 2014 and has hit numerous summer reading lists from The Boston Globe to O Magazine and USA Today. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.” The novel is being translated into numerous languages, and a feature film is underway.

Lily is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. (http://www.lilykingbooks.com/about/)

Lily King winkylewis-3617Photo by Winky Lewis

I write by hand with a pencil in a spiral notebook. That’s how I’ve been writing  ever since grade school, and it’s how I’m writing these words right now, though when it gets to you, all traces of that initial draft will be gone.

I like the feel of lead scraping onto paper; I like the way the pencil tip starts to slope in one direction, creating a thick side and a thin side, and how with those two surfaces you get a subtle calligraphic effect. I like the way my brain works when I have a pencil in my hand. Just holding it seems to make the thoughts come, like the way putting food in front of your mouth makes the saliva run, or just smelling coffee makes you feel more awake. On paper you can write in the margin or squeeze ideas in between lines; you can use arrows and balloons and carets to rearrange and to add; you can draw pictures of what you’re trying to describe and you can read what you’ve crossed out and realize the way you said it that first time was better than all the other attempts, and you can run on and on because writing by hand does that, makes your sentences long and serpentine, like a river whose ending you don’t see until you turn the last bend.

When I was in high school I took a creative writing class for two semesters, junior and senior spring. We had to hand in a short story, three and a half pages of “polished prose,” my teacher said, every Monday morning for five months. I would often wake up Sunday mornings with a story already running in my head, the voice of it clear and sure (the editor, that savage critic, wakes up more slowly), and I’d grab my notebook and pencil and start writing it down. I don’t have a lot of memories from high school that are warm or pleasurable to me now, but thinking back to those Sunday mornings writing a story due the next day is one of them.

Lily King winkylewis-3531 copyPhoto by Winky Lewis

I still write like that, at first, when the story is new and I wake up with it and reach for a notebook. It connects me to my younger self, that sixteen-year-old girl with a broken family, big fears, and terrible hair, writing, it would seem (if you could see her from a high corner of her room—a new room, because her mother just remarried and she’s moved into her stepfather’s house) for her life. Writing about her old family and her new families, writing about her father’s anger and second divorce and breakdown (they won’t take that story for publication in the school’s literary magazine, “too personal”, she’ll be told, though “write what you know” is the mantra in her CW class), writing about unrequited love of all kinds, over and over.

I write the first draft of my novels in pencil in spiral notebooks exactly as I used to write those first short stories. I start at what I think is the beginning of the book and move mostly chronologically through to the end. Occasionally there is a back story, or a side story, but mostly I move forward through the notebooks. I section off the last 20 pages of each one for notes, for ideas I have for future chapters or for chapters I’ve already written. These ideas can be general (“Everything needs to feel relentlessly claustrophobic in this house”) or specific (“Have him give her his dead brother’s glasses”). They can be whole scenes, lines of dialogue, a fragment of detail. When the notes start to accumulate and confuse me, I make a timeline by drawing a line across the top of a page and little vertical notches along it and I make a list of all the things I think will happen, little and big moments I am trying to get to.


Lily King photo - Version 2

E.L. Doctorow once said, in a Paris Review interview, that he tells his students that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The timeline is one moment followed by another, my few feet of illumination at a time. Some of those ideas, once I get to them, are ignored. Others I try out and quickly know they don’t work. I go down one road, then another. Often I have no idea where we’re going to end up. I know where I want the characters to be emotionally, but I don’t know yet what needs to happen to get them there. I thought my novel Father of the Rain was just going to have two parts, until I woke up in the middle of the night, the night President Obama had been elected, and realized there was a whole third section to the book. I’d handed in my most recent novel, Euphoria, to my agent when I was turning off a highway exit, late to meet a friend for lunch, and saw a whole new ending play out in my head. At the stoplight I scribbled it down on a pad I keep in my car.

At the back of my notebooks I keep a log, a punch clock of sorts. When the writing day is done, I write the date and how much I’ve written. A good day for me is 3-5 notebook pages, but there are days, many, many days when I don’t write that much. Some days I write one page, or a half page, or one line. I do not force myself to stay in the chair until I’ve written a certain amount. I cannot do that. I know there are writers who force themselves to stay in the chair until they’ve written a certain number of words each day, but those writers, I am certain, don’t have children who need to be picked up at school. I try not to beat myself up about the days of few words. A lot of work is being done that is not writing, a lot of thinking, note-taking, and listening. Because the imagination is always working, churning up something. It’s the writer’s job to listen carefully.

Lily King IMG_1936

No one else can read my handwriting with much success. I can barely read it myself. It is small, mostly finely calibrated squiggles. Sometimes I have to trace these marks later with a pencil to figure out what I’ve written. But the transfer of my handwritten words to the computer is my favorite part of the process, and the most valuable. It is the closest I can get without weird anachronistic imitation to the days when writers had to retype each draft before handing it in to their editors. That step, rewriting every sentence, holding each word up to scrutiny, deciding what is good enough to go on the computer and what needs to stay in the notebook, is essential. And it’s joyful. Before this, when the page is blank, writing is scary and stressful. The unknowns too great. And afterward, there are too few unknowns, and things feel locked in place and small changes can unravel too much fabric. But in this stage it’s still fluid, not yet set, still receptive to reshaping. When I type in that rough draft I can hear it like I did not hear it as I was slowly, day by day, writing it, and like I will not hear it again as I read it over. I can hear it and play with it—it is both a fully creative process and a fully editorial one. It is the one time when the critic and the creator are both working full steam and in harmony. The rough draft relies solely on the creator, the critic banished from the room, while the future drafts demand more and more from the critic and less from the creator who shrieks at every change and chop. But in this step they are in balance. They are a team, passing the ball up the field easily and swiftly.

Sometimes I type up each chapter when it’s finished. Sometimes I go months without typing a thing. Once I spent sixteen weeks putting a whole notebook and a half onto the computer. Eventually everything gets transferred and printed out and read and edited, read and edited, many times.  The notebooks have been forgotten by then, pushed off the desk, flung in some corner of my study like empty chrysalises, dry husks of words.  The story has moved on, the scrape of pencil against paper forgotten. Until the next time, the next idea, the next Sunday morning when a new story starts spooling out and I have to try to catch it before it’s gone.

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EMPIRE DAY depicts cultural challenges of WWII refugees resettled in 1948 Australia

Empire Day   Diane Armstrong

Empire Day

By Diane Armstrong

4th Estate/HarperCollins: Sept. 1, 2011

My discovery of Empire Day was fortuitous.  I came across it as a daily e-book special on sale for $1.99. While I rarely find a book I want to read in such offerings, this one caught my eye because of its setting: Sydney, Australia in 1948. My Twitter handle of @Austraphile tells you all you need to know; I snapped it up.

Empire Day takes place over the course of a year, from Empire Day in 1948 (observed on January 26, and now called Australia Day) to the following January. It depicts a year in the lives of several residents of Wattle Street in the working class Bondi Junction neighborhood of Sydney. Wattle Street serves as a microcosm for a rapidly changing Sydney (and Australia generally) as Australia welcomed waves of immigrants, many of them refugees, following World War II. Seemingly overnight, Australia began a transformation from a white, Christian outpost of the British Empire in the South Pacific to the ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse nation we know today.

Armstrong orchestrates the interactions of the locals and the “New Australians” with sensitivity and historical accuracy. We meet Verna Browning, the retired, white-haired friend to all, and her son, Ted, a young and idealistic journalist working for the local scandal sheet; Kath, a single mother abandoned by her husband to raise their four boys, including Meggsie, who faces a dread disease of the time; and Maude McNulty, the 90-something sharp-tongued gossip of the street.

Into their block-long part of the world come Eda, a Polish Jew, and her teenage daughter, Hania, who had been adopted and raised by a Catholic family but then reclaimed by her birth mother and brought to Australia; Sala and Szymon, a newly married couple, also Polish Jews, struggling to adjust to each other and to Australia and pulled in different directions; Mr. Emil, a shy and secretive gentleman with seemingly odd habits, whose wife and two children had died in the Holocaust; and Lilija, a beautiful young Latvian woman whose overprotective parents refuse to let her date the smitten Ted Browning. All of the immigrants carry the burden of secrets from the Holocaust, one type of “Sophie’s choice” or another, guilt, heartbreak, or desolation, along with the hope that Australia — so different from their European world that it may as well be another planet — will offer them a chance at a new and safe life.

In addition to this compelling mix of cultural conflicts,  Armstrong has crafted a suspenseful mystery: How have Nazis and Fascists made their way to Australia despite a screening process intended to keep them out? Ted stumbles onto this story when interviewing newly arrived immigrants and pursues it into a refugee camp near Albury, in the countryside between Sydney and Melbourne, and, through a clever twist, right into Wattle Street, where one such person has settled right under his nose.

Empire Day is a well-written, fast-paced novel with a large cast of complex characters, all of whom have a story to tell (or to keep secret). Armstrong has done an especially admirable job of depicting the lives and mindsets of the Jewish immigrants; as it turns out, Armstrong emigrated to Australia from Poland as a nine-year-old in 1948.

Armstrong’s three novels (Winter Journey and Nocturne, as well as Empire Day) have been compared to those of Maeve Binchy and fellow Australian Geraldine Brooks; I would place Empire Day halfway between those authors’ approaches. At $1.99, this was one of the best book bargains I’ve ever encountered. You should not hesitate to pay more for this moving and memorable novel that captures a time, place, and people so well.

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Writer Alexander Chee on his three years reading only women

Alexander Chee

Readers of this blog should read Alexander Chee’s essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (October 12, 2014). “Gender Genre” describes the three years Chee spent in his early 20’s reading nothing but fiction by women. You can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/books/review/gender-genre.html?ref=review

Chee is a poet, essayist, and novelist who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Wesleyan University. He currently serves as associate fiction editor of the online literary magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. His first novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2002. His second, The Queen of the Night, is due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.

 

 

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