THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages


The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

THE JUNGLE AROUND US: STORIES probes the mysteries of people and places

the-jungle-around-us

The Jungle Around Us: Stories

By Anne Raeff

University of Georgia Press: Oct. 1, 2016

$24.95, 140 pages


The folks at the University of Georgia Press who administer the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction have done a stellar job of “discovering” new talent. The list of winners includes Dana Johnson, Lori Ostlund, Ha Jin, Bill Roorbach, Amina Gautier, Antonya Nelson, Debra Monroe and, in the last few years, Monica McFawn and Karin Lin-Greenberg.

One of the two 2016 winners was Anne Raeff, an English teacher at East Palo Alto Academy. UGP recently published The Jungle Around Us, a collection of Raeff’s stories, which were previously published in literary journals like Guernica, New England Review, and Antioch Review.

The Jungle Around Us is a darkly compelling series of stories set in places we rarely visit and know little about, from southern Mexico and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Paraguay. The characters share a sense of dislocation, literally and figuratively, and Raeff coolly probes their psyches and actions as they try to orient themselves to threats both real and imagined. Yes, there is jungle, as well as war, heartbreak, loss, memory, and identity, all surrounding, oppressing, and confusing these characters. Raeff’s narrative voice and prose style are calm and hypnotic, a contrast to the intensity of her characters’ struggles.

The centerpiece of the collection is a quartet of stories featuring sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in which we observe the two young women as they try to make sense of the mystifying adult world.

In “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” they encounter the man who is only referred to by his surname, sitting in their back yard and smoking big, smelly cigars while discussing the Vietnam War with their father Isaac and his woman friend, Mrs. Tuttle, whose son is off fighting in the war that has so disturbed Jakobson.

In “The Buchovskys on Their Own” their father, forced to travel to Russia to do research for his book, leaves the girls in the care of his friend, Katja Ladijinskaya, whom he has known since their families immigrated from Russia together in 1941. During his time in Russia, Isaac and his daughters discover that people and places are not at all what they expect.

“Maximiliano” finds the adult Simone, now a home health care worker, visiting Juliet in Asuncion, Paraguay, where she is living with an older man and his precocious young son, Maximiliano. In a setting unlike any she has experienced, Simone is perplexed by Juliet’s choices and the mysterious comings and goings of Raul but intrigued by his son’s gentle nature and fascination with birds. The sisters find each other inexplicably foreign after years in which one has lived in New Jersey and the other in places like Paraguay.

“Chinese Opera” concludes the collection with an exploration of the effects of the murder of their neighbor, Danny McSwene, with whom the sisters once listened to music and practiced dancing.

“After the War” concerns Karl and Margot Epstein, who fled Vienna to avoid the Nazis and ended up waiting out the war in the jungles of Bolivia. After six years, they immigrate to New York City, where they struggle to adjust. Although New York City is not unlike the Vienna of their memories, they have been marked by their time in Bolivia and it has affected their marriage. Karl had tried his best but he never felt part of Bolivia. He found some solace in his friendship with the drug addicted priest Antonio, in scenes that remind one of Graham Greene’s work. But the ghosts of the past follow Karl and Margot to their new life in the new world.

In “Sonya’s Mood,” we meet the daughter of Karl and Margot, living in New York City in the late 1980s, as AIDS decimates part of its population. She was 11 when they left Vienna and 17 when they moved from Bolivia to New York City. Now, approaching her 60th birthday, she still daydreams about Bolivia and listens to her “scratchy old 78s. They sound right to her, even though they are full of static and skips.” The music recalls her first love, Luis. Despite her long marriage to Dan Cohen, her moods have only worsened rather than faded. She meets a gay friend, Rick, for lunch, and his stories of heartbreak and newfound romance add kindling to her low but long-burning flame.

“The Boys of El Tambor” takes us to Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, a coastal town near Veracruz.  Ester, a painter, writes to her former lover, Amy, a writer, back in Albuquerque, about her sudden decision to pick up and leave after experiencing personal and artistic frustrations, in part because Amy insists she needs both Ester and her boyfriend, Gilbert. Ester has stopped in Coatzacoalcos and taken work as a domestic of sorts. She enjoys her anonymity because no one asks about her painting or Amy, and she finds comfort hanging out at El Tambor, “a sleazy bar where all the drag queens hang out” and where a lesbian is welcomed as “one of us.” She enters into an arrangement with Marta and Rafael, her employers, mirroring Amy’s circumstance but without love or passion. The middle-aged homosexual who owns El Tambor offers Ester a moment of solidarity that begins to set her back on track. Interestingly, “The Boys of El Tambor” connects with “Sonya’s Mood” and “After the War” when Ester notes in passing that she might return to her hometown of New York City or even Bolivia, “where my mother and my grandparents spent the war years.”

“Carlito on Pink” introduces us to Kenard, a 16-year-old American student in Nicaragua who is equally possessed by his new passion for photography and the developmentally disabled son of his host family, Carlito. At home, his father is in jail for murder and his mother is going through a series of boyfriends. Kenard’s life at home is limited to school and the Boys and Girls Club, so the school trip to Nicaragua offers him escape and time to think. Carlito becomes his preferred subject.

Raeff’s stories are subtle and haunting, and I occasionally felt as mystified as her characters in sorting out the import of people and events. I was rewarded by second readings, a sign of rich, complex stories that, like the characters within, don’t reveal all their secrets at first meeting. There is a quiet confidence to Raeff’s writing that belies a fierce intellect unafraid to confront the darkness in the jungle around us.

THE RED CAR takes us on a wild ride through a young woman’s life

the-red-car

The Red Car

By Marcy Dermansky

Liveright/W.W. Norton: Oct. 11, 2016

206 pages, $24.95


The Red Car reads like the title vehicle drives: fast, unpredictable, possibly possessed,  occasionally thrilling, and not quite comfortable.

With her third novel, Marcy Dermansky takes us on a wild ride with thirty-something Leah as she tries to make sense of her life. Like the narrator in Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” she is not quite sure how she got to where she is and if it’s even really her life.

Leah’s close first-person narration takes us, in short order, from a tryst with an adoring nerd at Haverford College to clerical job in Facilities Management at UC Berkeley in her mid-20’s and on to her unsatisfying marriage to an Austrian immigrant in Queens ten years later. In short, sharp sentences, Dermansky propels the reader through Leah’s idiosyncratic attitudes and actions. She seems to be living her own life yet strangely removed from its import. Everything is slightly off.

The plot kicks into high gear when she learns that her boss at Berkeley, a single older woman named Judy who had befriended and mentored Leah, has died in a car accident while driving her beloved red sports car – and that she has left the car and some money for Leah. Called back to the Bay Area for Judy’s funeral and to deal with the car, and needing a break from her emotionally manipulative husband, Leah flees her stultifying life in New York City for a “two-week vacation.”

In an episodic narrative that finds Leah trying to sort out her past – and a totally unexpected and disorienting present — in order to determine a possible future, Dermansky leads her protagonist through encounters with a lesbian living in her old San Francisco apartment, a former co-worker she has always found desirable, her old college friend who is now teaching at Stanford, and a mysteriously charming young Japanese hotel clerk in Big Sur, as well as an encounter with the worshipful guy from the prologue.

The Red Car takes us on a memorable drive as Leah attempts to figure out where she went wrong and how she ended up living the life she leads. Is it too late to change direction and change herself? If not, then how does she do that? Who or what is holding her back? Who’s driving this car anyway?

The Red Car is never less than interesting – you want to know what on earth will happen next – and Leah’s voice, with its unvarnished, stream of consciousness self-analysis, is quirky and intriguing . Her experiences and reflections present a host of thought-provoking issues. And the dialogue is razor-sharp, always smart, and often funny.

But The Red Car is also somewhat cool and aloof and not quite emotionally unfulfilling — a bit like Leah. As with many of the characters, I enjoyed spending some time with Leah, but I couldn’t see having a relationship with her; she is too consumed with trying maintain a functioning relationship with herself and the world.

Like the red car she fears, Leah is a fast, unpredictable, and possibly possessed character. In spite of my minor quibbles, this road trip is still worth taking. Just buckle up and hold on.

Six Terrific Recent Books You May Have Missed, Part 2

We all know 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. 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 mystery to potential readers. And sometimes a book receives acclaim and sells well, but readers still miss it. There are a LOT of books out there! Here are a handful of recently published novels and short story collections that deserve your time and attention.


bottomland  michelle-hoover-grayscale

Bottomland

Michelle Hoover

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic

March 1, 2016

Hoover’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Quickening, concerns a family of German immigrant farmers in post-WWI Iowa. The Hess family faces discrimination from suspicious neighbors and townspeople but they hunker down and continue to work hard. Then their two young daughters, Esther and Myrtle, disappear. Have they run away to the much-desired big city of Chicago? Or were they kidnapped? In spare, Catheresque prose well-suited to the land and characters, Hoover tells a haunting tale of familial love, the personal and societal effects of war, and dreams gone awry.


crooked-heart-of-mercy  billie-livingston

The Crooked Heart of Mercy

Billie Livingston

William Morrow

March 8, 2016

Livingston is a well-regarded Canadian author of fiction and poetry who deserves to be better known in the U.S. The Crooked Heart of Mercy is the story of three broken people coping with personal tragedies. Ben is a limo driver who has sustained a serious head injury. His wife, Maggie, tries to hold their already fragile life together while Ben is being treated for both physical and psychological damage. She looks to her brother Francis, a priest, for help. But he has his hands full with a DUI scandal, and Maggie finds herself in the role of caretaker for two men. Livingston has a quirky and compassionate sensibility that makes you care deeply about these flawed characters, who find that they can save each other in unexpected ways.


folly-of-loving-life  monica-drake-by-bellen-drake

The Folly of Loving Life

Monica Drake

Future Tense Books

March 8, 2016

Drake is part of the burgeoning Portland literary scene. After two novels, she has written a collection of linked stories set over the course of three decades that depict “old Portland” in an uncompromising but often darkly funny manner. Sisters Vanessa and Lucia lead us through a cast of characters working at a range of low-to-mid-level jobs that just allow them to scrape by. You will recognize these “tough but tender” people no matter where you live and work. Drake’s writing is raw and memorable.


as-close-to-us-as-breathing   elizabeth-poliner

As Close to Us as Breathing

Elizabeth Poliner

Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown

March 15, 2016

Set on a stretch of the Connecticut coast known as “Bagel Beach” for its popularity with Jewish families, As Close to Us as Breathing is a family saga involving the lives of three adult sisters who spend summers there in their family cottage, with their husbands coming down on the weekends. It begins with a tragic accident in 1948 and follows the siblings and their families as they cope with this loss amid the tension between tradition and assimilation in the decades after WWII. The sisters are vividly drawn and characters who will continue to walk around inside your head after you finish this book. One caveat: The story is narrated by a family member looking back to 1948, when she was 12, and it moves back and forth in time and involves many characters, so it can occasionally be disorienting. Polliner’s second novel is a richly layered, compelling read.


houseguest  kim-brooks-close-up

The Houseguest

Kim Brooks

Counterpoint Press

April 12, 2016

The Houseguest reminds us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Set in New York in early 1941, before American Jews knew of the Holocaust, The Houseguest tells the story of Jewish immigrant Abe Auer, a junkyard owner in Utica, who is persuaded by his rabbi to take in a refugee named Ana Beidler. She turns out to be a beautiful and complicated young actress from the European stage. Her charismatic presence upsets the balance of the Auer household even before she disappears around the time that Abe and other Jews begin to learn of the Nazis’ atrocities. Brooks’ psychologically astute novel shines a light onto the responses of American Jews like Abe Auer, as well as the Jewish organizations in the U.S., many of which operated below the radar to aid their European brethren. More than one “houseguest” has moved in and confronted Americans with a range of unexpected moral dilemmas. This is a powerful debut novel, and one that is especially timely in light of current issues involving refugees.


they_could_live_with_themselves_cover  jodi_paloni_by-dawn-surratt

They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni

Press 53

May 3, 2016

Reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Paloni’s debut is a collection of linked stories set in the tiny town of Stark Run, Vermont. Paloni has crafted a series of stories that probe the inner and outer lives of the community’s residents. She writes with a deft touch and palpable empathy for her flawed and very recognizable characters, who often surprise themselves and others. The cumulative effect of the interconnected vignettes is that of a mosaic slowly taking shape. They Could Live with Themselves is perfect for reading in front of a fire on a chilly autumn evening.


Photo Credits

Monica Drake by Bellen Drake

Jodi Paloni by Dawn Surratt

We Need to Talk About Money: Practicality’s Place in a Writing Education

Yi Shun Lai


By Yi Shun Lai

The other day my husband fixed our bathroom sink with a video on YouTube, and I read a tutorial on how to build a wall planter.

So I was kind of surprised when I saw someone in an online writer’s community I’m in ask whether or not we thought her MFA program should be teaching her about the business of publishing. I mean, if I can learn rudimentary Spanish from an app, surely this person, who’s paying thousands of dollars to learn how to have a career in the written arts, should expect to learn how to…well, have a career.

I guess a little background is due: I’m a writing coach and editor. I’m also a novelist, and I edit nonfiction at a literary magazine. I cut my teeth in the consumer magazine world, and write marketing copy and teach workshops. In short, I make my living with words. I have an MFA myself, from an institution I chose specifically because its faculty comprised working writers, and a certificate in publishing from what is now the Columbia Publishing Course (when I graduated, it was still the Radcliffe Publishing Course). I got much of my writing-business acumen on the job, and when the time came to write and query my novel, I learned almost everything from friends who were literary agents, and, eventually, more timely information from my MFA program.

I’ve noticed a few things that crop up again and again when folks talk about writing and what place business has in it, and where and how you should learn these things. I’ll address them from my point of view below. And I invite you to partake in conversation about them in the comments. Here we go:

1. Talking about money feels icky.

No argument there. I grew up in a family and a culture where, if you had to talk about it, it meant you didn’t have enough of it. So there’s a deep personal shame to be contended with. But then, I wonder, how does one make a career of this thing we all love so much? If we don’t talk about the money, and the making of it, then how do we know what to expect, and what defines success?

I’m not saying we should all be willy-nilly exposing our finances to anyone who asks. Money is a very personal thing to some folks, myself included (I used to get hives whenever someone mentioned the word “budget”), but people who are just starting out in the creative industries deserve to know how much they can expect to make. No better, more neutral place to talk about potentially personal things than in an academic setting.

This kind of shared information is critical. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a really good spreadsheet of how much freelance editors can expect to charge and make; I don’t see that as being very different from writers knowing how much they can expect to make, and how. (Most literary magazines and consumer magazines that do pay will publish their rates, so do your homework. Ask around.)

2. During the pursuit of your MFA, you should be learning about craft, not business.

This one is a real stickler for me. Folks who go to get their MFAs presumably want to make a career out of this whole writing thing. In order to make a career out of something, you have to know what comprises this career; what better place to know that then at the institution that’s purportedly meant to provide you with the tools for a career in writing?

The whole thing’s kind of circular, isn’t it? I mean, where else will you learn to write a query letter, do your research on agents, learn about standard publishing contracts and other avenues for promoting your work?

I guess the thing is, we all want our work to be seen. No one pumps thousands of dollars into an advanced degree just because they want to write for themselves. Writing is a business like any other: Writing gets seen because it gets promoted, and although the avenues might be different in each genre and field, the end result is the same.

2a: (A sidebar.) I checked with some friends who have their masters degrees in journalism, and while none of them said they had classes directly addressing pitching and publishing, they did relay to me that they learned such things in their internships, which are a required part of the curricula. Plus, you were expected to pitch to your professors and understand the ins and outs of the process of publishing before you went anywhere. I don’t have an MA in Journalism, and I can’t remember exactly where I learned to pitch, but I do know that by the time I was out of my BA for less than a year, I was successfully pitching freelance articles. (I’m pretty sure I asked a lot of people. The Internet was not as, uh, reliable in 1996-1997.) Not having this knowledge when you start on your freelance career makes your life so much more difficult–and it’s inexcusable, both from an instructor’s POV and a working writer’s POV. If you don’t already know, please ask someone who’s been in the business. Heck, ask me.

3. Writing is a talent-driven meritocracy; your work should speak for itself.

Readers of this blog will have already heard from Wendy J. Fox, who wrote about the difficulty she had in selling books. And so you will know that, even if you’ve been shortlisted for prizes and have a publisher with a publicity department behind you, you are up against a lot of pre-existing noise, conditions that conspire to make your book fall away into the big black hole of remainders.

You need to know about this thing called book marketing, at least enough to ask the right questions of your publicist, or, if you’re like me and doing much of your own publicity, you need to know–well, how to do that.

And writers have to be willing to talk about their own work.

bookseller I met at a writing conference last year put it the best I’ve ever heard it: “It’s not about the author as marketeer; it’s about doing honor to your work.” I love this so, so much. You worked your ass off to get where you are. Doesn’t your work deserve the best chance you can give it, and aren’t you the best salesperson of your work? I think so.

4. Writing is a talent-driven meritocracy, Part 2.

This is not a level playing field. There’s already been a lot of discussion around the lack of diversity in publishing. But historically (and presently!), that lack of diversity isn’t just about ethnicity and race; it’s also about economics.

Some students in underserved areas may never get to hear about publishing as a career field. If they’re lucky enough to hear about it in college and go to a fully funded MFA program. and then graduate with no real clue about what the business of publishing looks like, then that’s just as bad as never having had the opportunity at all.

MFA programs and instructors that don’t spend some time talking about the business of publishing do play a part in keeping publishing the purview of the privileged.

There are still, from what I gather, quite a few MFA programs that don’t make it a point to teach the business of writing and publishing. I can’t possibly know all the pressures MFA programs are under, but I think it’s important to give MFA students this leg up in making a life of writing.

Of course it’s important to have space and time to practice your craft. I’d venture a guess and say most people pursue an MFA because they want to improve their art. But you should also be asking some questions, and getting some answers, about the pointy end of the stick, so you can, you know. Eat. Pay rent. That kind of thing.

In the meantime, those of us who already have the experience should be passing on what we know about the business of publishing.* We all want a rich literary ecosystem. The steady spreading of this information is a good way to ensure that.

*Some resources:

JaneFriedman.com

QueryShark.blogpost.com

QueryTracker.com


Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, is published by Shade Mountain Press and in its fourth printing since its release in May. She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and a writing coach and editor. You can find her at thegooddirt.org.

Author Photo: Michael Negrete

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.

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.