Five Terrific Recent Books You May Have Missed (Part 1 in a series)

We all know — and repeat — the old saying, “So many books, so little time.” And it’s never been more true than now, when more good books are being published than ever. It’s an embarrassment of riches. One of the unintended consequences of such a wealth of choices is that deserving books are often overlooked. Some receive passing attention, often below the typical reader’s radar, while others are inexplicably ignored by the publishing industry, press, and booksellers, keeping them a complete mystery to potential readers. Here are a handful of recently published novels and short story collections that deserve your time and attention.

Watch for Part 2 in the “Recent Books You May Have Missed” series next week.


Grace

Natashia Deon

Counterpoint Press

Grace  natashia-deon

Oprah may have made Colson Whitehead’s novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad, into the summer’s literary juggernaut by choosing it for her book club, but Natashia Deon’s Grace is equally deserving of attention for its unblinking look at the consequences of slavery on women, both the mother-and-child relationship and their freedom to love whom they choose.

Starting in Alabama in the 1840’s, Grace tells the story of fifteen-year-old Naomi, a runaway slave who finds sanctuary in a Georgia brothel run by a free-minded madam named Cynthia. There Naomi falls in love with a white client and has his child, whom she names Josey. From this point, Grace becomes the story of Josey as narrated by Naomi. Half-white, visibly different from the other slaves, she is raised by a freed slave named Charles. When the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, Josey is free, but her fight for dignity is just beginning. Laws don’t automatically change the hearts and minds of the people, and Josey is forced to make her way through a violent, post-Civil War world.

Grace depicts, in often brutal fashion, the cost of stealing someone’s dignity, their unique humanity. Naomi’s narrative voice is authentic and vivid in its unflinching telling of this difficult, but necessary and totally unforgettable, story. Deon has made a powerful statement in her debut novel.


What Lies Between Us

Nayomi Munaweera

St. Martin’s Press

what-lies-between-us  nayomi-munaweera-grayscale

What Lies Between Us is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read this year. It is a heart-shredding story told by the protagonist from prison as she looks back at her life. Ganga is a young girl in Sri Lanka whose quiet life is upended by a shocking violation involving a family friend. Eventually, she and her mother emigrate to the U.S., where Ganga struggles to leave her past behind and reinvent herself as an American teenager. She is torn between two cultures and between the past and present, but she is fiercely determined to move ahead.

Munaweera’s depiction of the complex challenges of the immigrant experience is as good as any I’ve read, and her writing is controlled and lyrical. When Ganga, working as a nurse, falls in love with an American man, her future finally comes into focus. And that’s when her past returns to change everything. The last section of What Lies Between Us is a psychological thriller, and the ending is a literal jaw-dropper.


The Universal Physics of Escape: Stories

Elizabeth Gonzalez

Press 53

universal-physics-of-escape  elizabeth_gonzalez

I read a lot of short story collections and Gonzalez’s debut made a big impression with its wide-ranging intelligence and crisp writing. The winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, The Universal Physics of Escape essays a diverse cast of characters trying to find their way out of one circumstance or another, to figure out what is next and how to get there. Gonzalez moves across subjects, settings, and conflicts, but the unifying thread is her compassionate insight into her characters’ lives. The other thing that impressed me was the quality of her writing, with its masterful prose, realistic dialogue, and confident display of varied narrative voices. Every story pulled me in and held me fast, intrigued by the often odd settings and plots. While the conclusions of some stories were unsettling or unclear, they left me pondering the people and problems she presents.

Although this is a uniformly strong collection, a few stories stood out. The opening “Shakedown” concerns an old railroad man who runs a small hydraulics shop but is otherwise at loose ends in the modern world. He is reconnected to his past and able to make a sort of peace with his life when an old steam engine train, restored to run again after many decades, passes through his rural Pennsylvania town.

In “The Reclamation Specialist” the title character, Henry Gray, works for the Pennsylvania Coal Commission trying to restore abandoned mining sites to their original condition. A coal fire has been raging beneath the tiny town of Centralia and Henry has been trying to convince the last fourteen residents to relocate. If he can persuade Mayor Charlie Tenpenny, an old coal miner, to leave, he believes the others will follow his example. And in “Half Beat,” a woman recalls her childhood piano lessons with her elderly teacher, during which she was more interested in getting her to tell the story of how her heart was broken many years before.


People Like You: Stories

Margaret Malone

Atelier 26

people-like-you  margaret-malone

Malone’s debut is a collection of spare and dryly humorous character studies written with unflinching honesty. These are characters we know from the “awkward moment” comedy of shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” people who through their own fecklessness or emotional confusion just can’t seem to get things right or catch a break. They are often their own worst enemy. In many cases, they are us: imperfect, perplexed, stymied in every direction.

Three stories anchor the collection. In the opening title story, married couple Bert and Cheryl attend a surprise party neither is particularly excited about and, thanks to inaccurate directions on the invitation, get lost on the way there. Unfortunately, they arrive in time and the party is one awkward moment after another, as is their relationship. Half a dozen stories later, they return in “I’m Your Man,” in which they visit a fertility specialist to determine whether Bert might be the cause of their inability to conceive. They don’t get the answers they need. Finally, the somewhat unhappy, less-than-loving couple face a miscarriage in the closing “Welcome to Samsara” but ultimately reach a place of tenuous balance.

I particularly enjoyed “The Only One,” which is narrated by an adorably earnest and confused middle school girl. Sylvie struggles to make sense of boys, school drama, her piano lessons, her parents’ recent divorce, and her unsettling thoughts and fantasies. “Kissing was on the way to sex and I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was a slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.”

“Yes” concerns a 17-year-old girl’s answer to her 23-year-old boyfriend Chuck’s proposal. On a cross-country trip to help his mother relocate to Massachusetts, the threesome stop in Reno, which the newly engaged narrator observes is “almost a tiny Vegas but [it] feels unfinished, like someone took a lunch break in the middle of building it and never came back.” Left alone on the fringes of the casino floor while Chuck plays blackjack, she ponders whether she gave the correct reply.

Malone’s writing is so natural and seemingly effortless that the stories fly by. It’s no surprise that People Like You was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction (won by Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen).


Lions

Bonnie Nadzam

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic

lions  bonnie-nadzam

Nadzam won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize for her debut, Lamb, which was also longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. So there was a feeling of anticipation when her follow-up, Lions, was published in July. Like Lamb, her new novel takes place in the isolated setting of the Colorado plains, in this case the dying town of Lions, and it is the story of both the town and its handful of hardy residents.

John Walker runs the town’s welding shop, as did his father and grandfather, and he expects his son Gordon to do the same. But Gordon’s girlfriend, Leigh, desperately wants to leave for college and the outside world, and Gordon is torn between loyalty to his family and his attachment to the land on one hand and his devotion to Leigh and the sense that Lions has lost its pride. When an old drifter passes through, John, who is famous for his unassuming open-heartedness and generosity, treats him like an old friend and sends him on his way well-fed and newly-clothed. But shortly thereafter Walker dies of a heart attack, forcing the hand of Gordon and others whose lives were profoundly influenced by him in ways the story slowly reveals.

Nadzam’s writing is prose-poetry at its best, gorgeously evocative of the open spaces, harsh weather, and ragged charm of Lions and its surroundings. Lions is a haunting and hypnotic story of people lost in transition.

Ronna Wineberg: “Nine Facts” About Writing a Collection of Stories

ronna-wineberg-photo-nine-facts-cover

Now that my new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life (Serving House Books), has been published, I’ve begun to think more about the process of writing—what writing means to readers, what it means to me. I’ve thought about the difference between writing a story and building a collection of stories, and what happens when a book is launched into the world.

A collection is a different entity from a single story. Putting together a book is like creating an issue of a literary magazine. The writer has to consider the individual stories and the composition of the book as a whole.

For my new book, I pulled together disparate pieces of my work and had to arrange the stories in a logical order that made it seem as if the stories were inextricably connected.

I was faced with choices and decisions.  Doubt crept into my thinking. Could I really create a collection of stories that would work and coalesce? I had written lots of stories, more than could fit into one book.  I piled them on my desk and read them, added stories to the manuscript, took out others.  Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life has had a different title, a different epigraph. The selection of stories changed over time and so did the order. When I wrote a story I considered strong, I removed a weaker one from the manuscript.

The book includes two pieces that weren’t part of the manuscript I submitted to Serving House Books.  And as I was preparing the pages for galleys, I decided to add “Bare Essentials.”  I’d removed the story earlier, but the piece tugged at me.

As I read the stories in the collection, I learned that the unconscious has a will of its own.  I was surprised to find I’d repeated similar images, even the same names and words in stories.  I wasn’t aware of the repetition when I wrote the pieces, but it was there, on the pages.  I’d used the word “foolish” too many times, and described buildings as “red brick.”  I had to find replacements.

I didn’t include some of my favorite stories in the book. They either didn’t reflect the book’s themes or touched on ideas explored in other pieces. Parting with these stories was hard, like leaving a dear friend whose company I cherished.

My collection went through many lives.  It was in flux.


A friend recently described a woman, saying, “She lived alone.” She meant that the woman had lived alone as a child. Not literally. The woman had lived inside of herself as a child; she wasn’t heard by her parents.

I found this observation chilling: A child with thoughts and emotions whirling and no place to put them, no receptacle, no possibility of discussion or sharing.  We’ve all had that feeling at one time or another, of not being heard, and felt the tension between what we wanted from parents and what they gave us.

I thought of my childhood and the times when I had experienced living alone even though I was with family or friends.  What are the ways we can be heard?  Some people talk a lot, perhaps trying to compensate for what they didn’t receive as a child. Some retreat into silence, a familiar stance.  And, perhaps, others become writers.  Is that why we write—so our thoughts, voice, and vision can be heard?

The irony is: there’s no guarantee of an audience, even if a story is published in a literary journal.  “There’s no echo,” a writer friend once said.  The story may have a relationship with the reader, one the writer will never know about.


A few years ago I went to a poetry reading. The writer, who was famous, read aloud his poems. They were perfect.  I knew him in high school; he was a football star then. At the reading, he talked about poetry like a man in love.  “I couldn’t find a container for what I felt,” he said, “until I tried to write a poem.”


Some of the stories in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life had been published in literary journals.  I revised them again for the book.  I’d considered them finished, but realized they needed work. The editor suggested changes, too.  I saw the stories with fresh eyes and altered scenes and images.  I had never been happy with the ending of one. The story seemed to stop; I wrote a new ending.

I labor over a story, examining descriptions, words, images, and character development, and try to make a piece work, even sing, if I’m lucky. This is challenging, sometimes punishing labor.  Even when I’m not writing, a story pours through my mind.  Often the key to a piece comes to me when I’m not at my desk.

Sometimes I never find the key.

I’ve thought about a story in the middle of the night, fallen asleep, and awakened to find the thoughts lost. What seemed essential in the night was obliterated in the morning.

Had I really finished the published stories or just abandoned them?


When I decided I wanted to write, I took classes at the University of Denver in the graduate school creative writing program. I was in my thirties, older than other students—the mother of two children, and then three. I was allowed to attend classes without being enrolled in the program. The professors met with students individually during office hours.  At my appointment with one professor, he said, “What are your goals for writing? What do you want?” He had gray hair and a wrinkled smile.  He was in his fifties or sixties.  He had been writing for a long time.

I thought for a moment.  I wanted to write eloquently like the authors of books I had read and admired did.  I wanted to write a story that worked. To see if I had it in me. And there were stories I felt an urgency to tell. I told him this and also said, “I want to learn to master the form.”

“Don’t you want to write the great American novel and be on the cover of TIME magazine?” he asked.

I imagined he was joking, but realized he was serious. Was this what he had once wanted for himself?

“No,” I said.

What he had suggested seemed to cheapen writing, as if TIME magazine was the arbiter of literary taste.  I was surprised by the question, though I shouldn’t have been.  He was talking about fame, recognition, celebrity.  He knew how difficult literary fame is to achieve and how brightly seductive it is.  He knew a writer had to be realistic: to write, you have to sit in a chair alone in a room and put in the time.  This isn’t glamorous like a splashy photo on the cover of a magazine.  He knew about years of rejection, the small victories of publishing stories in literary journals.

When I left his office I felt confused. Should his suggestion be my goal?

No.  I wanted to write without trying to fit my work into a category.  I wanted to say what I wished without shaping it for a purpose or audience.

I should have told him what T.S. Eliot wrote: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

I didn’t know at the time I spoke to the professor that I would have my own version of the TIME magazine fantasy.  I wanted to have a book published by a large New York publishing company, with its resources and possibilities for promotion.

This didn’t happen.  And for a while I was disappointed.  Writer friends told me not to be discouraged; rejection was part of the process, part of the business of writing. They were right.  I collected rejections from literary journals, agents, big publishers, small presses, contests.

Each story of mine that appeared in a literary journal felt like a gift. I began to understand the thrill of these victories.

And I’m grateful that three terrific independent presses published my books and took great care with them, nurturing the work.


After a book is launched, many things occur.  My gratitude.  Reviews.  Or lack of reviews.  Readers’ reactions.  Not only the readers’ judgments about whether a book is worthwhile, their positive and negative comments, but also their sense of what the author has borrowed from life and put onto the pages.  Did that really happen? a reader may wonder.  A writer consciously or unconsciously may borrow elements from his or her own life.  My daughter calls this “the crumbs of your life.”

Readers may see something in the work that wasn’t intended. There is the possibility of misunderstanding.  In my novel, On Bittersweet Place, a scene unfolds in which an uncle inappropriately touches the narrator, Lena.  I made this up.  The incident seemed to describe the uncle’s character and was a burden Lena had to carry through the book.  However, my cousin read the novel and told me that an uncle by marriage had done something similar to her. She was surprised I knew about this. Though that was my cousin’s sense of things, I hadn’t known about her upsetting encounter with our uncle and was shocked to learn about it.  

While I was writing On Bittersweet Place, I read aloud the Prologue to my mother.  Her family had fled from Russia after World War I.  In the book, Lena’s family also fled then. “But that’s not the way it happened,” my mother said after she listened to the Prologue. She frowned, and corrected the facts.

“That’s okay, Mom.  It doesn’t have to be true,” I said.  “This is fiction. It’s a novel.”


A character in “Bare Essentials,” one of the stories in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, quotes the sculptor Henry Moore.  His words apply to writing, too. “The secret of life is to have a task,” Moore says, “something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.”


When my children were young, writing temporarily whisked me away from the worries, joys, and responsibilities that come with raising a family.  My children are grown; I miss the immediacy of being a mother.  Now writing takes me away from daily obligations and the startling sense that time is passing, more quickly every year, it seems.


I’ve learned that, for me, the process of writing is pleasurable as well as difficult and challenging, but it is the pleasure that I love.  Diving into the unknown.  I didn’t understand this at the time I talked to the gray-haired professor or I would have told him this.

When I’m concentrating on writing, in that special mental space, immersed in the flow of writing, I’m not thinking about real life or having a book published or being reviewed or whether a reader will like my work or not.  I’m not thinking about TIME magazine or misunderstandings or the labor of writing—the decisions, doubt, and revisions—or the crumbs of my life. I am in love with the process, hard as it is at times, in love with what I do in a room alone: putting one word after another on paper or on the computer. Revising those words. I love the joy of creating something new.

When I write, I feel most myself, and not like myself at all. If the work is going smoothly—and even when it’s difficult—I am a happy contradiction. I am ageless. I am young; I am old. I am living many lives. I am the age of whatever characters I am writing about. My characters are my companions.  I carry their baggage, fears, and happiness, their emotions.  I’m wandering in the great green expanse of my imagination, trying to capture feelings and descriptions, images, characters, and scenes before they fly away and disappear.


Ronna Wineberg is the author of a novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), and two collections of short fiction: Second Language (New Rivers Press, 2005), which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, and Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, which was published earlier this year by Serving House Books.  Her stories have appeared in such places as American Way, Confrontation, Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and South Dakota Review, and have also been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Wineberg is the recipient of a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the John Atherton scholarship in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and residencies to the Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She is the founding fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her essays have appeared in Ethics in Criminal Justice, River Oak Review, Steam Ticket, The Tennessean, and Writers on the Job.  Please visit her at: http://www.ronnawineberg.com

Chaos Outside the Study Door: Virginia Pye on Balance in Writing and Life

Virginia Pye author photo 2_0  virginia-pye-books

Last night, at a bookstore reading in Boston to celebrate the launch of her second novel, the author mentioned the “mental multitasking” required of women writers. We must live double lives, she said, or even triple, I’d suggest, as we juggle writing, paid work, and often, family.

The day before, an aspiring writer and friend sat on my back patio and lamented how she can’t make time to write during the academic year. Her job as an elementary school librarian and her community involvement are so time consuming, though also greatly rewarding, that there’s nothing left in her mind late at night or early in the morning when she finally pushes aside the tasks of the day and sits down to write.

Another friend, a best-selling author with three young children, recently texted me: “I’ve not been working, in any real way, for something like two months. And I feel almost panicky about returning to my manuscript.” That she is highly successful and widely respected seems only to ratchet up her anxiety, not calm it.

Frantic, worn out, and living multiple lives, the woman authors of probably every book that Bill Wolfe so skillfully reviews on this blog writes with chaos just outside their study door. Male authors no doubt face similar, difficult pressures as those experienced by women, and of course each artist’s challenges are unique, but for the purposes of this blog that focuses solely on women writers, I’m interested in sharing my own experience and that of other women I know who have pursued writing through various stages of life. They may not have recently made a big transition in their lives, as I have by moving to a new city, but with children careening about, or paid work to complete, not to mention spouses or partners who require a certain amount of attention, we women writers must struggle to block out the noise of our lives.

In her journal, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My mind is churned and frothed. And to write I must be a clear vessel.” If anything, achieving this ideal state of mind has become even more elusive for women writers. To succeed at putting meaningful words on the page, the woman writers I know juggle complex schedules, financial pressures, and the needs of loved ones in order to find the clarity Virginia Woolf described.

Before I had children, it was easier for me to create the ideal conditions for writing. I taught writing at a university and tutored at a high school, but I still managed to write daily. When my first novel didn’t sell, I pressed on and wrote another one. I had a strong second draft under my belt when I gave birth to my first child. The delivery was complicated and left me exhausted and debilitated for months. The experience of having almost not survived made me all the more grateful to be a mother.

In the first months, my attention was focused on recovering and and enjoying my daughter. The thought of writing hardly occurred to me. I remember my husband setting up the changing table on what had been my writing desk. The irony of that choice wasn’t lost on me, but it didn’t matter: I had no regrets about putting writing aside. And in the following years, I continued to prioritize being a mother over being a writer of long form fiction.

But eventually the urge to write began to return. I first found myself penning poems, mostly about motherhood, but also about nature and gratitude for life. Eventually, these became prose poems. Then they became short essays on mothering. Then finally, I wrote short stories in which I created fictional characters and worlds, my imagination reignited and engaged once again.

By then, my son, born three and a half years after my daughter, was ready for preschool. I had spent almost eight years being a full time mother. Although not every moment was idyllic or easy, I loved those years with my children. But as I returned to writing, I was now ten years older and with no published novel to my name. I felt greater internal pressure to write than when I’d been an aspiring writer in my late twenties and thirties and had all the time in the world. As a result, I dove back into the practice of novel writing each day when the children were off at school. I returned to my craft with a vengeance.

I remember feeling keenly aware that some of my peers had continued to write published novels while having children. That hurt my ego and made me ache for the legitimacy that being published bestows. But in looking back, I can see that I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to recover from childbirth then commit myself fully to being a mother, building up my reserves in order to raise my family, and perhaps also in order to have the mindset to eventually return to novel writing. Now, as a recent empty nester, I relish my uninterrupted days. At the same time, I miss the clamber and vitality that I had grown used to in our home.

Today, I see more women writers who are young mothers and who also somehow manage to publish highly accomplished work at the same time. I envy their sense of purpose and success, though I know it can’t possibly be easy.  The pressures on these women are enormous, but they still manage to maintain their imaginations and inner lives. Pursuing their work, even in brief, free moments, helps these admirable women maintain a sense of themselves when they might otherwise feel like they’re drowning in the monotony and challenges of motherhood. I remember that feeling and how hard it was to strike a balance.

The world continually distracts us from our work at the same time that it nags us to be successful. We feel we should be at peek productivity all the time, in every season of our lives. But for many of us, that isn’t possible. We need the fallow periods as well as the ones in which we write with sharp focus. Both of my published novels were written fluidly and with a clear sense of purpose, but I have a half dozen other unpublished ones, including the one I’m working on now, that took years to write. Each book has its own rhythms, its own demands on our imaginations and lives. If everyday living swamps us, then I think it’s helpful to accept that fact, until, once again, the balance shifts and we reach a place where writing can become a top priority.

On Facebook and Twitter, every other friend seems to be publishing a new book every other week. I’ve recently seen posts by women writers who have dashed out final scenes before going into labor, or written right through chemo treatments, or while dealing with the death of a parent. If true, those are remarkable achievements. But I’ve also seen mention recently in reviews and interviews that some authors have “lost” whole years to travel, or childrearing, or in the case of a recent young man who was compared to Dickens, to years of playing video games. While I don’t recommend that distraction, who can say what feeds the mind of the writer?

We need to have faith that our skills as writers will still be there when the time is right for us to create. My best-selling author friend and my school librarian friend will each get back to their writing when the time is right, and perhaps because their lives are so full right now, they’ll return to it with a new and more enlightened mind. The increased wisdom and empathy that we gain from living our lives well is surely reflected in our writing.


Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch and was called “riveting” by Library Journal. Gish Jen wrote, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Virginia’s debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a Finalist for the 2013 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Caroline See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating,” and Annie Dillard described it as, “A strong, beautiful, deep book.” Her award-winning short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

HERE COMES THE SUN probes Jamaican “paradise” to explore the lives of women struggling against the cultural current

Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

By Nicole Dennis-Benn

Liveright Publishing (W.W. Norton Co.): July 5, 2016

$26.95, 349 pages


Here Comes the Sun was one of the summer’s “buzz books” that, unfortunately, took me a while to get around to reading. That was a mistake because Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel is an impressive debut that marks her as a writer to watch. Here Comes the Sun succeeds both as a page-turner of a story and a fearless character study of four women struggling to make sense of their lives in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Dennis-Benn takes us behind the sun, sand, and sea to explore the lives of the people who live in the real Montego Bay but work in the fantasy world that tourists inhabit for their brief stay in Jamaica. The protagonist, Margot, works in one of the resorts owned by an aristocratic white family. Strikingly beautiful and willfully charming, Margot is a workaholic determined to save enough money to send her younger sister, Thandi, to a good private school and then on to college and medical school so that she will not have to spend her life working in Montego Bay.

But Margot’s regular job is not sufficient for her purposes. So she engages in late night rendezvous with wealthy hotel guests, doing her best to keep this knowledge from her co-workers. She is willing to sacrifice part of her soul to save Thandi from menial labor and from their mother, Delores, a taskmaster at home and a tenacious vendor at the swap meet favored by tourists with money to burn. It’s clear that Margot is broken but not why. What has led her to pay this high price to facilitate Thandi’s escape?

Margot has more than one secret, though. She is also, contrary to Jamaican culture’s fierce opposition, in love with another woman. And 16-year-old Thandi, though a dedicated student who wants to please her big sister and mother by becoming a doctor, eventually discovers that she too has dreams and desires. Margot’s love interest has her own story as well, fraught with sacrifice and loss in the face of omnipresent disapproval.

All four women dream of a better life for themselves and those they love, and they are willing to do nearly anything to make their dreams a reality. Margot, Thandi, and Verdene simply wish to be allowed the freedom to follow their heart and love whom they choose.

Dennis-Benn captures the sights and sounds of Montego Bay through both major and minor characters, many of whom speak the island patois. Margot’s internal conflict is reflected in her code switching from standard English to Jamaican Creole as needed, sometimes in the same conversation and even the same sentence.

Here Comes the Sun weaves a complex series of personal and cultural conflicts into a coherent whole that makes for absorbing reading. Everyone has a secret, or a secret self, and these secrets are tested by the challenges of a changing economy in the face of climate change and corporate greed, personal circumstances and actions that shock the unsuspecting, and two characters’ newfound determination to embrace their sexual orientation despite living in a culture that treats any divergence from the heterosexual norm as a sign of Satanic possession.

Dennis-Benn has created an unforgettable character in Margot and a powerfully personal story of women seeking self-fulfillment at nearly any cost. After reading Here Comes the Sun, you will never view Jamaica the same way.

Eavesdropping: Michelle Brafman on how Bertrand “Ray” Farkas taught her the power of listening

Kittner_20140916_4310This election season is bringing out the worst in all of us, myself included. I’ve laughed at photos of Trump’s face superimposed on a horse’s ass and gleefully pored over the precise words Melania stole from Michelle. I’ve scream-ranted about Trump’s xenophobia, fat-shaming, and misogyny and have diagnosed him with a slew of mental disorders I’ve pinched from the DSM-5. I’ve done this all in front of my children, undermining years of effort to teach them how to see the gray in the world and in people, something I value deeply as a mother, writer, and human being.

The incessant candidate bashing hurts my ears and my heart. I want the shouting and the hating to stop. I also want my mentor, the late Bertrand “Ray” Farkas, back.

I recently had dinner with Ray’s daughter, and we agreed that her father, an Emmy Award-winning television producer for NBC and numerous other programmers, would be having a field day with this election if he were alive to see it. Without question Ray would have dined out on the memes and jokes and feared the potential of a Trump presidency.

Ray also would have put aside his personal feelings to do what he did best. Listen. From very far away. Ray’s approach to television news was unique and often copied by other producers, sound technicians, and photojournalists. Here is how his bio described his work: “He believed in conversations — not interviews, eavesdropping — not intruding, no lights, and keeping the camera far away from his subjects. He was devoted to time, place and context — little things, not big things, that television can do better than any other medium. But seldom does.”

I picked Ray as my mentor when I was a television producer, but he taught me as much, if not more, about writing. He implored me to pay attention, always, and to listen to silences, where Grace Paley said “little truths growl.”

ray-farkas-photo-by-bob-burgess

Ray removed himself from the conversation in order to record people talking to one another. He did so by attaching wireless mics to his subjects, sitting them down at a diner booth or park bench, and setting up his camera yards away. He used long lenses and a foreground composition (his email address was Foreground@aol.com). These shots were not only visually interesting, but they gave the viewer the sense that he/she was eavesdropping on a private discussion.

Eavesdropping is a writer’s lifeblood and demands a different kind of listening, a subtle craning of the neck, a curiosity about a conversation that’s just out of our reach, a commitment to closing our mouths and opening our ears. This trait was Ray’s calling card as well. He never shoved a mic in someone’s face, ever, and not because he wasn’t aggressive in his desire to tell a story. Ray captured some of the most tender moments in U.S. history: the aftermath of 9/11, the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial, and numerous others.

In “Interviews 50 cents,” (a magazine series featured on ABC, PBS, and Slate V), Ray teamed up with former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick and traveled the country setting up interview stands.

Ray and Alex shared the belief that everyone has a story: a Key West man negotiating his life with AIDS, an ex-con musing about his future at the Indiana State Fair, and myriad participants who plunked down two quarters to unburden themselves. I learned how to listen for such stories, which led me to write my own imaginary ones, culminating in Bertrand Court, my book of linked narratives about the kind of characters who might have popped up at one of Ray’s interview stands.

If Ray were alive, one of the networks would have called him to produce a series on the election, maybe because one of his disciples, an idealistic, slightly offbeat, producer like myself would have made it happen. He collected us like stamps. He would have meandered over to a diner, ten or so miles and a whole universe away from Capitol Hill. He would have drummed up both a Trump and a Hillary supporter, not politicos, but mechanics, teachers, or insurance salesmen, people who are fed up enough to want change and passionate enough to think that one of these candidates will give it to them.

Ray would mic them, place a ketchup bottle in the foreground, and set up his camera outside the diner. The light would be fading, and they’d talk, forgetting that he was sitting outside with a headset, both blissed out by their expression of honesty and scared by the unbridled fear and anger that is guiding this race. And there would be no mics waved in anyone’s face.

Ray would thank these people and arrange another such pairing. And after a long exhilarating day of shooting, he would call it a night. The next day he would go through his footage and tweeze the most genuine and raw moments and mix them with the natural sounds of the cash register, the fryer, and a Springsteen anthem on the jukebox. He’d find an editor to piece all the elements together, exactly to his satisfaction, and the final product, shot through the haze of a pro-mist filter, would contain no shred of sentimentality.

Merely watching one of Ray’s pieces would remind us to put our mics down and listen with the rapt curiosity of an eavesdropper. We’d reenter the conversation with more civility. And we’d be much prouder of who we are, once the yelling finally stops.


Michelle Brafman is the author of the novels Washing the Dead (2015) and Bertrand Court (2016) (both published by Prospect Park Books). Her writing has appeared in Slate, Tablet, Lilith, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children.
Photo of Ray Farkas by Bob Burgess

Center for Fiction announces finalists for 2016 First Novel Prize

Center for Fiction First Novel Prize 2016 Finalists

The Center for Fiction in New York City has revealed the seven finalists for its prestigious First Novel Prize, narrowed down from the initial 25 nominees. Six of the seven authors are women, including five women of color.

The shortlist (alphabetical by title, matching the photos above from left to right):

Kia Corthron — The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

Emma Cline — The Girls

Nicole Dennis-Benn — Here Comes the Sun

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing

Krys Lee — How I Became a North Korean

Kaitlyn Greenidge — We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Garth Greenwell — What Belongs to You 


Read a brief synopsis of each finalist here.

The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author receives $1,000. The winner will be announced at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on Tuesday, December 6 at The Metropolitan Club.

The Center for Fiction has a good track record in selecting novels that went on to win awards like the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the like. Previous winners include, in chronological order, Marisha Pessl for Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking), Junot Díaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead/Penguin), Hannah Tinti for The Good Thief (The Dial Press), Karl Marlantes for Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts), Bonnie Nadzam for Lamb (Other Press), Ben Fountain for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco/HarperCollins), Margaret Wrinkle for Wash (Atlantic Monthly Press), Tiphanie Yanique for Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead Books), and Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer (Grove Press).

See the longlist here.

 

ANOTHER BROOKLYN captures adolescent friendship and coming of age in pristine prose-poetry

Another Brooklyn cover   Jacqueline Woodson AP tlc-tour-host

Another Brooklyn

By Jacqueline Woodson

Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers: Aug. 9, 2016

$22.99, 175 pages


Jacqueline Woodson is a legend in the YA literature world, with a long list of novels that have won every major YA and children’s literature award. Her last novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014. She has distinguished herself by respecting her readers’ intelligence and maturity, addressing issues like race and class, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, gender issues, and adolescent sexuality.

After 20 years, Woodson has written a novel for adults. And while Another Brooklyn retains her trademark concerns and powerful prose style, it digs deeper, pulls fewer punches, and features an adult protagonist looking back at her formative years.

When 35-year-old August returns to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and to sort through his apartment, she has a brief encounter with an old friend on the subway. This launches her into an exploration of her early years in Brooklyn and the power of memory. It’s a useful framing device that carries readers into August’s life story and allows her both to describe her experiences and comment on them with the benefit of 20 years.

When August’s mother descends from depression into despair and serious mental illness her brother Clyde is killed in the Vietnam War, her father decides to flee their home in rural Tennessee and take August and her younger brother back to his hometown of Brooklyn. It is 1973 and August is 8; her brother is four. She doesn’t understand the nature of her mother’s condition and tells herself and her brother that their mother will be coming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” It is an ominous allusion.

Having landed in a dangerous new urban world, August and her brother are kept in the apartment by her father. They are on the inside looking out at the neighborhood and its denizens. August’s eye is caught by three seemingly inseparable girls. In her dreamy mind, they are like the Three Musketeers without D’Artagnan.

“Before they were mine,” August tells us, “I stared at their necks, watched their perfect hands close around jump ropes and handballs, saw their brightly polished nails. . . I watched them, wanting to have what they had. . . But as I watched Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi walk past our window, I was struck with something deeply unfamiliar–a longing to be part of who they were, to link my own arm with theirs and remain that way. Forever.”

In time she meets and is adopted by the trio, who decide August needs to be rescued because, among other things, she has no mother. Sylvia came to Brooklyn the previous year from Martinique, speaking French; she has lost the language but retained an accent. Her parents are intellectuals who want her to become a lawyer. Gigi, from South Carolina, is dark-skinned, with Chinese and mulatto ancestry, and wants to be not just an actress but a movie star. The light-skinned, melancholy Angela dreams of being a dancer.

Woodson  places us inside August’s mind as their circle of friendship and love develops in their pre-teen and teen years. Naive, sheltered August soon learns that Brooklyn is an often desperate place, with varying levels of poverty, wandering hallucinatory junkies, and verbally and physically abusive boys and men seemingly around every corner and in every dark stairwell.

“We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long. We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them–our voices loud, our laughter even louder. But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung out soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.”

The girls share everything: their dreams, their frustrations, their fears, their family difficulties, their crushes on boys. They encourage each other with their words and physical affection ranging from hugs to braiding each other’s hair. The challenges of “adults promising us their own failed futures.” Temptation is everywhere, from junk food and cigarettes to drugs and boys with a lupine look in their eyes.

As they begin the transition to adolescence, August explains, “We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists. We frog-jumped over tree stumps, pulled each other into gushing fire hydrants, learned to dance the Loose Booty to Sly and the Family Stone, hustled to Van McCoy. We bought t-shirts with our names and zodiac signs in iron-on letters. But still, as we slipped deeper into twelve our breasts and butts grew. Our legs got long. Something about the curve of our lips and the sway of our heads suggested more to strangers than we understood. And then we were heading toward thirteen, walking our neighborhood as if we owned it. Don’t even look at us, we said to the boys, our palms up in front of our faces. Look away look away look away!

Woodson captures the 1970s and sense of place with exactitude. I was 14 in 1973 and I grew up 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, but I know these girls; Woodson’s detailed descriptions of the adolescent life at that time ring true.

More importantly, Woodson captures the deep adolescent yearning to become. . . something, someone, and the sense of being lost at sea in the act of trying to create oneself. August never quite grasps that her mother’s absence is permanent, and her ghost haunts her youth and this novel. And there is a sense of foreboding about the girls’ relationship, set off by the adult August’s uncomfortable and purposely brief encounter with Sylvia at the start of the book. There are a thousand things that can cause teenage relationships to go awry and only a handful that hold them together into adulthood with its manifold changes.

August finds a way to navigate through high school and into college and a career, both of which were beyond the younger August’s capability to dream. She becomes someone she never envisioned but seems in many senses to have been destined for. Returning to “another Brooklyn” twenty years later, at age 35, doesn’t quite bring her or the story full circle, for life is not quite that neat and Woodson not that superficial a storyteller.

Like Brown Girl Dreaming, which is written in verse form, Another Brooklyn is as impressionistic as memory; the narrative moves back and forth in time and place through August’s stream of consciousness. Ann Patchett correctly describes Another Brooklyn as “a sort of fever dream.” Woodson’s writing is prose-poetry of the highest order; it begs to be read repeatedly, and aloud. Woodson told NPR’s Lynn Neary in a recent interview that her words have to look and sound a certain way. “I love playing with form, I love playing with sounds,” Woodson said. “I love music and I love writing that has musicality to it. The book does have this kind of jazzy feel to me.”

With Another Brooklyn, Woodson has given us a much-needed look into the lives of four young black girls in 1970s Brooklyn that is universal in its message and appeal. This white, 50-something man who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles found it a deeply affecting read. I suspect that, like its YA predecessors, it will soon be considered a contemporary classic among coming-of-age novels.


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You can find the other reviews in the Another Brooklyn blog tour at the following blogs:

Tuesday, August 9th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, August 10th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Thursday, August 11th: 5 Minutes For Books
Friday, August 12th: Books Without Any Pictures
Monday, August 15th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, August 16th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, August 17th: Lit and Life
Thursday, August 18th: Staircase Wit
Friday, August 19th: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Monday, August 22nd: As I Turn the Pages
Wednesday, August 24th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, August 25th: Olduvai Reads
Monday, August 29th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, August 30th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Wednesday, August 31st: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Thursday, September 1st: Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, September 2nd: Life By Kristen
Saturday, September 3rd: The Book Diva’s Reads
Monday, September 5th: Starting Fresh