In honor of Fathers’ Day, I’ve compiled a list of novels by women that fathers (well, men in general, actually) should like. One of my objectives in starting this blog was to encourage men to read more fiction by women. I don’t think I’ve succeeded, but it’s a battle worth continuing to fight.
The following novels feature compelling characters (both men and women), involving plots, a powerful sense of time and place, enough action to satisfy the typical male’s requirement that “something happens,” and that certain something that just makes me think they would appeal to guys.
Sparta — Roxana Robinson
Roxana Robinson’s Sparta may well go down as the definitive depiction of the costs of war paid on the home front. In a gripping third person narrative, Robinson shadows Conrad Farrell upon his return from four years of front-line duty in Iraq. Sparta moves back and forth in time from Conrad’s tour of duty to his return home.
But the core of the story concerns his attempts to cope with PTSD, reestablish his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend Claire, and to reintegrate into a civilian world that he finds mystifying and occasionally even infuriating. He has left some crucial part of himself behind in Iraq and struggles to find his true self again. To an observer he appears to be the ideal American warrior specimen, but inside he is psychologically and emotionally shattered.
The last section of the book is something of a page-turning thriller, as the reader wonders what Conrad will do to solve what appear to him to be overwhelming and unsolvable difficulties. If I had to choose one novel about the experience of Iraq War veterans coming home that will still be read in 20 years — and likely considered a modern classic — it would be Sparta. It is required reading for anyone who cares about the human costs of war.
The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.
It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest.
Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug.
This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place.
We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride
Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.
The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace. McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.
The Tusk That Did the Damage — Tania James
Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished. It is a masterful work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that will hold most readers spellbound.
James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.
Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.
The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).
Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.
James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.
Friendswood — Rene Steinke
Rene Steinke, author of the 2005 National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts, has returned to the literary scene after nearly a decade with a timely and absorbing novel. Friendswood explores two issues that are seemingly discrete but are actually intertwined: corporate polluters turning a residential neighborhood into a toxic waste site and sexual abuse by high school athletes in a small town that worships football. In both cases, the immoral and possibly illegal behavior of privileged actors is indulged by the majority, who value economic growth and athletic prowess over questioning their way of life, the choices they make, and the cost of both.
The narrative is shared by four characters. Lee is a mother turned single-minded environmental activist when her teenage daughter Jess dies from a strange cancer. Jess’s death eventually drove Lee and her husband apart; now her life revolves around her part-time job in a doctor’s office and monitoring the adjacent property, the site of a former refinery. When she discovers that the site is belching toxins from the soil again, Lee moves from vigilant to vigilante.
Hal is a former mediocre high school athlete struggling to make a living in real estate; he is living vicariously through the athletic exploits of his son, Cully, and hoping that a recent religious rebirth will save him, his business, and his wilting marriage. Willa is a 15-year-old student with an artistic streak and an eccentric persona that doesn’t fit easily into the culture of this small town located between Houston and the Gulf. Dex is a classmate of Willa and Cully with more on his mind than just football and girls. Their lives intersect in ways they could not predict, even though readers probably can.
Time has passed since the toxic cleanup and town leaders believe part of the former refinery property is safe for new residential development. Big shot developer and former football star Avery Taft wants to bring this project to fruition, and Hal is desperate to persuade Taft to retain him for his realtor services. Lee has discovered worrisome materials during her nocturnal prowling behind the fences and attempts to alert the few influential people who are sympathetic to her unpopular obsession. Dex develops a romantic interest in Willa, as Cully begins to see her as an easily manipulated potential conquest.
Steinke grew up in the actual Friendswood, Texas, and she knows small towns and their residents well; she knows that football, religion, and the oil business are often the Holy Trinity in such places.
Kind of Kin — Rilla Askew
Kind of Kin author Rilla Askew deserves high praise for managing to explore the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.
The novel’s protagonist is Georgia “Sweet” Kirkendall. Her father, Bob Brown, a taciturn but respected local mainstay in the tiny town of Cedar, Oklahoma, has been arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn, to the surprise and disappointment of friends and family. Even more strange is the fact that he refuses to hire a lawyer or put up a defense.
His parentless grandson, 10-year-old Dustin, is forced to stay with Sweet, who is already struggling with her own son, a young bully named Carl Albert, and her husband, who works long hours out of town and has grown emotionally distant from Sweet and Carl Albert. At the same time, Luis Celayo has entered the U.S. illegally to search for his long-lost sons, who went north to work. The plot is enriched considerably by the fact that Sweet’s niece, Misty, is married to an illegal alien who has been deported but has made his way back into the country. Then Dustin disappears, and the hunt for him drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.
While on paper the plot may sound melodramatic, it does not read that way. Instead, it comes across as a realistic depiction of the many lives affected by the political decisions made on the issue of immigration and immigrants’ rights. The narrative is fast-moving, the various viewpoints are woven together smoothly and logically, and the characters act like real people, not cardboard cut-outs intended to stand in for points in a political or legal argument.
Kind of Kin is a deeply involving story whose headlong momentum makes you turn the pages faster as the novel progresses. Kind of Kin would make a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to chew on within its 400 pages of powerful prose. For everyone else, it is worthy of this high praise: It is a terrific, thought-provoking book that you won’t be able to put down or soon forget.
The Home Place — Carrie La Seur
In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to a small college outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.
But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business.
While her mind is thus engaged, Alma is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billing, “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property.
La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced.
The Bees — Laline Paull
The Bees combines the best traits of a thriller, a character study, a hero’s quest, and a dystopian fantasy to powerful effect Just as Richard Adams made readers care deeply about a warren of rabbits in his 1973 classic, Watership Down (perhaps the best novel for adults featuring anthropomorphized animals), Laline Paull’s The Bees will have readers worrying about the many threats, both external and internal, to the members of one hive in an English orchard.
Flora 717 is a dutiful member of the sanitation workers, the lowest caste in the hive, when it is discovered that she can speak (the “flora kin” group is mute). For her part, Flora is deeply conflicted between her genetic predisposition to “Accept, Obey, and Serve” (the workers’ mantra) and her rational and critical mind, which causes her to question, disobey, and ultimately lead.
As she demonstrates her intelligence, bravery, and devotion to the Queen, she moves up literally and figuratively in the world of the hive. But her proximity to the Queen, the Priestesses, and the drones makes her privy to knowledge she would be better off not knowing. Before long, Flora has become a threat to the Queen in a way she could never have imagined.
Beyond its intense and exciting plot, The Bees is distinguished by its well-drawn and credible characters. On one hand, Flora is consciously reluctant to follow her own path, for nothing could be less like a bee, yet she is compelled to take certain actions, as if her mind is being controlled by a force greater than herself.
The novel’s other noteworthy accomplishment is the way Paull has seamlessly incorporated a wealth of fascinating information about bees without bogging down the narrative. Her background in screenwriting has resulted in a cinematic thriller with several scenes you are unlikely to forget. The Bees begs to be turned into a movie; the question is whether the CGI experts will dare to attempt it.
Paull has provided filmmakers with a riveting story featuring a gamut of memorable characters and a unique setting. In the meantime, readers have the opportunity to experience The Bees in the movie theater of their own mind.
Man Alive! — Mary Kay Zuravleff
We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.
Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.
In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings. And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.
As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni?
Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Man Alive! is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.
River of Dust — Virginia Pye
One of the great joys of the reading life is the ability to travel to other times and places, to experience life among other peoples and cultures. Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, though not a joyful novel, offers those pleasures in abundance. River of Dust is a character study of a man of great faith enduring a spiritual crisis, a close examination of the dynamics in a young marriage, a suspenseful missing persons story, and a jaundiced travelogue.
A few years after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Reverend John Wesley Watson and his young wife, Grace, have been sent by the church to engage in missionary work in the small Chinese city of Fenchow-fu in the drought-stricken country northwest of Beijing. After making a name for himself building schools, roads, and a hospital, the Reverend (as he is called throughout the book) and Grace, along with their three-year-old son Wesley, move out of the missionary compound to a tumbledown house well outside of town. Before they can even move their bags into the house, a pair of Mongol bandits accosts them and kidnaps Wesley. The compelling plot of River of Dust is thus set in motion. Who are these men, why did they steal Wesley, and what do they want with him?
The Reverend becomes justifiably obsessed with hunting down the nomads and reclaiming his son. He sets out with his man, 60-year-old (but very capable) Ahcho, riding across the badlands in search of the bandits and young Wesley. Many Chinese mock the Reverend and his “Lord Jesus.” They call him “Ghost Man,” some with grudging respect, some sarcastically.
River of Dust is the story of this young couple’s encounter with a strange nation: its wide range of people, incomprehensible culture, and primitive religious superstitions. Like most imperialists, whether political or religious, the Watsons and their fellow missionaries believe they understand China and its people’s needs and that they can make a difference in their lives. They soon discover that this may not be the case. China is far more complex than they had imagined.
Pye has done a masterful job blending several elements into a story about sympathetic characters operating under the most challenging of circumstances. There is much here that will fascinate, surprise, and even shock the historically and culturally curious reader.
The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld
There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the prisoners in a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel. But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.
Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation about finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.
The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of. The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation. The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out.
It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.
Station Eleven — Emily St. John Mandel
In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world. Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and made the long-list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK). It was also a huge bestseller, proving that thought-provoking literary fiction can be embraced by mainstream readers.
Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a pillar onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.
Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.
The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life. Then we move forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.
Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter?
Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama. The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.
Other recommended novels:
The Untold — Courtney Collins
The Gods of Gotham — Lyndsay Faye
A Guide for the Perplexed — Dara Horn
Black River — S.M. Hulse
The Moor’s Account — Laila Lalami
The Cutting Season — Attica Locke
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin
The Half Brother — Holly McCraw
Jacob’s Folly — Rebecca Miller
The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt