Behind the Book: Siobhan Fallon’s THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES

The Guard

By Siobhan Fallon

August 27th, 2017 — 6:02 a.m.

In early 2011, my family and I lived near the U.S. embassy compound in Amman, Jordan—so near, in fact, that our apartment was inside the outer guard ring. I was very happy about this situation. Two weeks after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy indefinitely to help with a NATO mission. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring was taking root and there were protests outside of the Syrian embassy, protests outside of the American embassy, protests in the rural areas outside of Amman over the high costs of cooking oil and bread, and protesters in Amman demanding political reforms. Then Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan, which was seen by many as another U.S. invasion of a country’s sovereign territory. Prime-time news was filled with burning American flags.

So you can imagine how much I loved seeing the U.S. embassy guards standing at the gates.

Everyone stationed at the embassy had to attend a Regional Security Brief within a few days of arrival. We were told to change up our driving routines in order to make it hard for us to be followed, to look under our vehicles for explosive devices, to not drive beyond Amman city limits after sunset, and to always let a fellow American know when we went on a trip.

We had also been warned about our Western ways, with a special emphasis on how American women needed to be sensitive to this culture quite different from our own. It was recommended that our clothing cover us from wrist to ankle. That we be aware conservative Muslim men would feel uncomfortable shaking the hands of women not related to them. How it was verboten to sit in the front seat of a taxi, the front seat being reserved for the wife of the taxi driver, and our presence there could be misconstrued as a sexual advance. How we should try to not touch the hand of a male cashier at a grocery store when he was handing over change, lest he view this as suggestive.

But the embassy guards — well, we did not need to worry about them; they had been thoroughly vetted, many had worked with Western companies in the past, some had even lived in America. Their English was better than the average Jordanian, and they were accustomed to our strange cultural differences, like American women wearing shorts and tank tops to the embassy gym (otherwise, we were advised to never wear shorts and tank tops in Jordan).

There was the guard who showed me video of his son’s gymnastics competitions. The guard who handed candy to my daughter, his pockets crammed with single-wrapped mints. The guard who meowed because he’d seen us feed stray cats. I brought them cookies, bottles of water, chocolate bars. I would have my daughter present the treats, and the guards would direct their thanks at her, press their hands to their hearts, say “Alhamdillah,” or Praise God,” pinch her cheek or ruffle her blonde hair.

The guard who worked the gate closest to my house spoke very little English, and while I spoke very little Arabic, we exchanged pleasantries almost every day. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, wore glasses, and would throw open his arms when he saw us. Most Jordanians said, “You are welcome!” This guard would shout, “A million, million welcomes!” Then one of us would inevitably say something the other would not understand, we’d pantomime merrily for a few incoherent minutes, and I’d wave good-bye.

About a month after my husband left, my daughter and I came to this particular gate and found him on duty with another guard, a young man with beautiful green eyes whose English was better than most. The older guard reached into his back pocket as I drew close, produced a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. I hesitated, knowing this was out of the ordinary.

I opened the letter and began to read, the words in capital letters, the writing painstakingly exact:

You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun—

I looked up, startled, feeling a blush warm my neck. The guard was watching me, nodding. I glanced down to read more just as the younger guard tore the paper out of my hand. He began to yell at the older man in rapid, angry Arabic, pointing at the high embassy wall behind us, then stabbing his finger in the direction of my apartment. I froze, trying to keep a smile on my face and ignore whatever was going on.

The young man crumpled the paper in his fist. He stared with those green eyes into mine.

“He does not understand,” he said. There was something combative about his face, his words. I nodded, chastened, as if I did understand. I took my daughter’s hand and walked toward the embassy. Later, I exited the embassy by another gate, sneaking around to my apartment building without having to pass those guards.

He does not understand.

What could those words possibly mean? And how could I ever find out? He didn’t understand I was married? He didn’t understand it was odd for a near-stranger to tell a woman she was beautiful?

Or he didn’t understand that I smiled and chatted with everyone, that it wasn’t a declaration of affection on my part?

***

They relocated those guards.

I’d occasionally see the older guard at one of the farther gates. He always welcomed me but he did not put his arms out in the joyful way he had before; he did not say “A million, million welcomes!”

And he never wrote me a letter again.

How I wish I had held on to it, read it in its entirety, studied the intentions and misspellings. It could have been nothing more than a show of friendship, Jordanians often being more effusive than Westerners. I had strangers tell me I was like a daughter to them. Once, I spent a few hours with a woman and she yelled as I drove away, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

He does not understand.

So I started writing a short story about Jordan as a way to figure it out.

That story became a 300-page book, The Confusion of Languages, and it could have been much longer. All those endless opportunities for miscommunication.

I lived in Jordan for a year. While I never wore a tank top or sat in the front seat of a taxi, I’m still not sure exactly what I understand—not just about the Middle East, but about men and women. About people. About the ways we get one another wrong every day, about the moments that seem small but for some reason linger.

About all the fragile messages we want so desperately to share with another human being, only to find the distance is just too far, and it’s too easy to lose the words before we ever get the chance to read them.

***

For more of Siobhan Fallon’s essays and fiction, photos of Jordan, or to order her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, please see her website: www.siobhanfallon.com

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Five great reads you may have missed (Part 2 in a series)

So many books are published each year that it’s impossible to keep up, even if you focus on only one type of book (e.g., literary fiction, short stories, crime novels, books by women). Add to that our busy lives and the many and constant distractions, and it’s easy to see how even passionate readers can miss a lot of good books. So, as my small contribution to solving this problem, over the next few weeks I’ve decided to publish a series of three posts in which I share some books that are worth your valuable reading time.


Pachinko

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Grand Central Books 2017, 481 pages

If 2016-2017 is remembered for anything beyond the political nightmare we find ourselves in, it might be as the years Korean fiction – by both Koreans and Korean-Americans – reached critical mass and got a lot of attention. The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the 2016 Booker International Prize (though it was originally published in Korean in 2007, it wasn’t translated into English until 2015); Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Shelter by Jung Yun, and How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee have also received acclaim.

But the book that is likely to stand as the definitive “Korean” novel is Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, published last February. The story of one Korean family from 1910-1980, Pachinko harkens back to a more traditional storytelling than much of contemporary fiction, combining the melodramatic family saga and literary fiction. When Sunja, a young girl in a fishing village, finds herself pregnant and abandoned, she needs an escape to avoid shaming her family. A visiting minister offers her a chance to marry and move to Japan. Thus begins the story of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, where they are treated like second-class citizens (at best).

Pachinko is one of the most immersive reading experiences I’ve had in recent years and focuses on a theme that I always find compelling: the immigrant’s struggle to acculturate, with the attendant schizophrenia of the Old World and New World pulling you in different directions. This is particularly so when one’s appearance broadcasts that one is different. The cross-cultural tensions in Pachinko, combined with Lee’s smooth, controlled prose, held me in thrall. This was a time and place and experience I knew nothing about, and Lee was a riveting guide through the family’s lives in a rapidly-changing Japan (has any country changed more than Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s?). Pachinko is one of this year’s must-reads. And I suspect it will remain a must-read for many years to come.


The Pathless Sky

The Pathless Sky

By Chaitali Sen

Europa Editions 2015, 312 pages

Chaitali Sen has written a timeless novel of love and life in an authoritarian society. She has wisely chosen to leave the country and time unstated, making her story universal, and yet it feels so timely and specific that it can be said to accurately capture our zeitgeist. (In that sense, it is somewhat like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.)

While books that tread this territory can feel coolly unemotional, with characters often representing ideas, The Pathless Sky achieves an emotional intensity through its flesh-and-blood characters and the hypnotic quality of Sen’s prose. It is the story of John and Mariam, who meet while in college and spend the following years in and out of each other’s lives for reasons both personal and political (with an emphasis on the lower case “p”). John is studying geology, a powerful metaphorical contrast with the fickle nature of human efforts, particularly those of authoritarian governments.

The characters’ opposing natures and the random, inexplicable actions of the increasingly militaristic police state combine to test their relationship in a hundred different ways. We never stop rooting for their love to triumph because it can be all we have left in such circumstances, the human struggling against the machinations of tyranny. The Pathless Sky could well have been titled Love in a Time of Oppression (apologies to Garcia-Marquez).


Hour-of-Daydreams

The Hour of Daydreams

By Renee Macalino Rutledge

Forest Avenue Press 2017, 235 pages

One of the more promising developments in fiction over the last several years is the increased presence of Asian writers. These are voices telling us stories we need to know, both because it’s good fiction and because the fictional world should correspond to the actual world. After many years as a journalist and nonfiction book editor, Renee Macalino Rutledge has published her debut novel with the literary fiction independent press that recently brought us the powerful Landfall by Ellen Urbani.

The Hour of Daydreams is a “reimagined Filipino folktale” about a country doctor named Manolo whose marriage to Tala is disturbed by his belief that she has wings that allow her to fly up to the stars at night. Tala is indeed hiding a secret from Manolo and it’s creating a divide in their marriage and their conceptions of fact and fantasy. Macalino Rutledge weaves this magical tale through the voices of several characters, and the result is a hybrid of folktale and contemporary fiction, merging myth and modernity as it explores marriage, gender, and culture. I was not surprised to see that this book has been compared to the work of Isabel Allende; indeed, The Hour of Daydreams reminded me of The House of the Spirits, with its elegant prose-poetry, brooding sense of possibility, and Macalino Rutledge’s ability to cast a spell over the reader.


Heat and Light

Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh

Ecco 2016, 435 pages

Jennifer Haigh is one of our best writers, yet she’s not quite a household name. Her second novel, Baker Towers, introduced the town of Bakerton in northwest Pennsylvania, where coal is king, but in the years following WWII, an increasingly weakened and aging king. Through her subsequent novels, Haigh explored contemporary concerns with compassion and insight (the effect of a child’s rare disease on her family in 2009’s The Condition, clergy sexual abuse in 2011’s Faith). In 2013’s News from Heaven, she returned to Bakerton in a series of interconnected stories that brought readers up to date on the current lives of the locals.

With last year’s Heat and Light, Haigh has laid claim to this part of Pennsylvania in the same way William Faulkner did with the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. This time, oil company reps have come to town to purchase the drilling rights beneath residents’ homes so the companies can search for natural gas through the latest method, fracking. Crews pour in from Texas, creating tension with the local folks. The impact of illegal immigration complicates matters further. Haigh explores the impact of this changing circumstance on a large cast of characters, including a prison guard, a nurse, a farmer, a pastor, and a visiting activist.

What makes Haigh stand out is her uncanny ability to inhabit so many characters so fully. They walk and talk like people we know or have encountered. And she makes us care about each and every one of them as they try to cope with a changing world that has turned everything upside down in Bakerton. In her review of Heat and Light in the New York Times, Janet Maslin compared Haigh’s concerns and style to those of Richard Ford, Richard Russo, and Richard Price. She certainly belongs in such esteemed company. If you read Heat and Light, be prepared to continue with Baker Towers and News from Heaven; before long, you’ll know as much about life in Bakerton as its residents do.


the-given-world-paperback

The Given World 

By Marian Palaia

Simon & Schuster 2015, 320 pages

The Given World takes us back to the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 to tell the story of Riley, a teenager whose older brother Mick is fighting in Vietnam. When he goes missing, Riley decides to go in search of him. Over the course of more than two decades, we follow Riley from her childhood in Montana to San Francisco, and ultimately to Vietnam.

Palaia tells the story out of chronological order, starting with Riley as a thirty-something woman in Saigon approximately 25 years ago. We are taken back and forth in time and in and out of characters’ lives, giving us a firsthand sense of Riley’s chaotic inner and outer life. The Given World is a powerful coming-of-age story, with a range of narrative voices that provide one gut punch after another, especially Riley’s tough-but-tender sections. This is a dark story, but enough bands of light cross it to give you hope that Riley will find her brother or at least herself. At the very least, she wants to know what happened to Mick. In a life of broken promises, abandonment, and addiction, she wants answers and closure for a change.

What really stands out in The Given World is Palaia’s ferocious writing. She dives deep into the characters’ psychic pain, and she conveys that in her vivid prose and well-chosen concrete details that capture Riley’s life in Montana and San Francisco. The Given World is a book of heartbreak and hope, a rough ride, and a satisfying read.

A conversation with Paulette Jiles on writing NEWS OF THE WORLD

  

 

What draws you to write about the Civil War era?

I was first drawn to it when I was researching the Civil War era in the Missouri Ozarks when doing family genealogy. That research went into Enemy Women. If you are a writer, research is really kind of an investment, a storehouse of stuff, facts, images and documents ready to hand. I was thinking of a sequel to Enemy Women in which I envisioned Adair and the Major moving to north Texas.  So I looked into conditions in North Texas at the end of the War and discovered stories about the black frontiersman Britt Johnson, which led to more research for Color of Lightning. This included discovering Captain Kidd by hearing about him from a neighbor here where I live. This neighbor’s ancestor was a real newsreader named Captain Kidd, or Kydd. It also led to looking into the intriguing subject of captives held by the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. And these things gave rise to News of the World. When you begin research, you step onto the Yellow Brick Road and there is no end to it. No end to the stories.

How many months or years of research went into gathering the fascinating historical details we see in the book?

It is hard to say how much time went into research for News of the World, because it all came from that storehouse I have of sources for both the Civil War, Texas and the clothing, etc. of that time. It was cumulative, from two previous novels. I used Wikipedia a great deal and especially the further references at the end of every Wikipedia article, and their sources. Also, I must say the fact-checkers at Harper Collins were wonderful, very keen and interested, they found mistakes I had let slip by and also pointed me to other sources. To get things right you have to love research. It’s an addiction.

Fans of The Color of Lightning will be happy to see Britt Johnson reappear in News of the World. How did you come upon the idea of bringing him into this narrative?

I was amazed that he had not been given a fuller treatment in literature, he is an archetypal hero figure, like Roland or Beowulf or El Cid. His story, while true, has all the attributes of the classic tragic hero. I just went back to the scene in Color of Lightning when Captain Kidd is reading from a newspaper about the Fifteenth Amendment while Britt and his crew, Dennis and Paint, stand in the back of the hall listening. It is raining. Something momentous is taking place. I shifted this scene into its own book, page one, and suddenly the subject becomes a captive girl. You can always use a good scene twice!

How would you explain your love of the Texas landscape, which figures so prominently in your overall body of work?

Some people are just born with a love of landscape or the outdoors, or gardening, or raising large animals, or searching through the non-urban world for treasure. It’s in your DNA or something. I am one of those people. We should have a secret sign. Part of the fun of researching Color of Lightning was driving up to North Texas with a friend, June Chism, to the Red River country. She and her husband Wayne have relatives there, as well as friends (ranchers) who took me down to the Red River, where I found the place Britt would likely have crossed, and we found the Stone Houses, and visited Spanish Fort, etc. It is a beautiful and also dangerous country. It is dramatic. There are fires, droughts and floods, rolling red land, astonishing skies. June’s husband Wayne Chism is the one whose ancestor was the real newsreader, who traveled from town to town in North Texas to read the news of the day to those assembled. Captain Kidd or Kydd. The moment Wayne told me about his great-great grandfather I knew this was a truly great character. I put him into the rainy chill landscape of North Texas in Color of Lightning, but I knew there was more there.

What emotional aspect of the story do you think readers will appreciate most?

I think readers will most appreciate the Captain’s courage in doing the right thing. His protection of the innocent, his staunch defense, even to the risk of his life, of a child in need.

Paulette Jiles is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, The Color of LightningLighthouse Island, and News of the World. She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.

Find out more about Paulette at her website.

NEWS OF THE WORLD takes readers on the memorable journey of an old man and an Indian girl across a lawless Texas in 1870

News of the World  Paulette Jiles tlc tour host 2017

News of the World

By Paulette Jiles

William Morrow: June 20, 2017
(originally published Oct. 4, 2016)

$15.99, 212 pages


Paulette Jiles’ latest book about Texas in the post-Civil War years, News of the World, belongs in the elite group of Old West novels that includes Lonesome Dove and True Grit. A sequel of sorts to The Color of Lightning, this short novel tells the story of a retired military man-turned-news reader, Captain Jefferson Kidd. While in Wichita Falls to read the news to the isolated locals, he is offered a $50 gold piece to return a young orphan girl to her relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was kidnapped at age six by a Kiowa raiding party, and her parents and sister killed. After four years, she is rescued by the Army; but Johanna has been transformed from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed German immigrant girl into a Kiowa who speaks no English and wants nothing to do with the white man’s world or white-haired Captain Kidd. He is reluctant to get involved but sees no other way for her to be delivered home. As a military man, he understands duty.

News of the World immerses the reader in a time and place that most of us know little about: Texas in 1870, two decades after it has been obtained from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and five years after the end of the Civil War. It is still a mostly lawless land, where a trip from Dallas to San Antonio, 400 miles southwest, is considered dangerous and borderline suicidal. Yet Kidd sets off on this “fool’s errand” with an uncommunicative, ten-year-old Indian girl in the back of his wagon. It will come as no surprise that Kidd and Johanna slowly learn to trust each other and then to communicate. Kidd is a widower with little but his news reading travels to occupy him and a hole in his heart where his wife Maria Luisa once resided. So while their developing relationship is predictable, the details provide all the pleasure.

On their journey south, the Captain and Johanna – which she pronounced “Cho-henna” encounter Army men, a child prostitute trafficker, a collection of crazy brothers who want to know why they’re not in the newspapers, and other colorful and occasionally threatening personages. The Captain gives Johanna English lessons and they discover that she remembers some German from her early childhood. At the same time, she proves to be an astute observer of human nature in both the Captain and the strangers who cross their path, as well as an independent girl with a variety of skills learned in her four years with the Kiowa. Watching their relationship develop is the novel’s chief satisfaction.

The other pleasures of News of the World are Jiles’ pitch perfect voice, with its authentic Old Texas sensibility and droll dialogue, and her prose poetry descriptions of the natural world in this mostly empty land. Early on their trip, during an impressive North Texas storm, she escapes, and the Captain finds her standing at the edge of the flood-level Red River.

“There at its edge, on a lift of red stone no more than thirty yards ahead, stood Johanna, wet as a dishcloth and her skirts heavy with rain. She clutched the doll to her chest. In the explosive lightning flashes the Captain could see, on the far side of the flood, a party of Indians. They were on the move. They had probably been flooded out of their campsite. The Red was still rising. Entire pecan trees rolled and ground like mill wheels in the current. The Indians had stopped to look across, perhaps at the distant lights of Spanish Fort, and Johanna was calling to them in Kiowa but they could not hear her. It was too far, the river was too loud.

“She put down the doll and shouted at the Indians with her hands around her mouth. What could she possibly think would happen? That they would come for her? She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps. They stood and stared across the water at her like creatures of the sidhe, wet and shining in every flash from overhead.”

It will not surprise the reader when the Captain and Johanna arrive in Castroville, west of San Antonio. As he promised the Army officer at start of the story, he delivers his young charge to her aunt and uncle, who had no idea she was coming, and aren’t quite sure what to make of her. A complicated situation ensues that does not play out the way some would expect.

Underpinning this traditional story is the pragmatic but compassionate soul of Captain Jefferson Kidd. One feels honored to meet this man and get to know him. The world has brought the news to the Captain and the story of these two vastly different survivors and their second chance at experiencing a sense of family is touching and memorable. It is no surprise that News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.


News of the World blog tour schedule

Read Her Like an Open Book is the final stop on the NOTW blog tour. If you’re interested in what other bloggers had to say about the book, here is the itinerary.

Tuesday, June 20th: A Bookish Affair

Wednesday, June 21st: Book by Book

Thursday, June 22nd: Literary Lindsey

Friday, June 23rd: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

Monday, June 26th: The Book Diva’s Reads

Tuesday, June 27th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]

Wednesday, June 28th: Book Snob

Thursday, June 29th: Ms. Nose in a Book

Monday, July 3rd: 100 Pages a Day…Stephanie’s Book Reviews

Tuesday, July 4th: Into the Hall of Books

Wednesday, July 5th: She’s All Booked

Monday, July 10th: Real Life Reading

Tuesday, July 11th: Wining Wife

Wednesday, July 12th: Cold Read

Thursday, July 13th: Reading is My Super Power

Friday, July 14th: Lit and Life


Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble 

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

So many books are published each year that it’s impossible to keep up, even if you focus on only one type of book (e.g., literary fiction, short stories, crime novels, books by women). Add to that our busy lives and the many and constant distractions, and it’s easy to see how even passionate readers can miss a lot of good books. So, as my small contribution to solving this problem, over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing a series of three posts in which I share some books that are worth your valuable reading time. Today, we’ll start with three novels, a short story collection, and a novel-in-stories from the U.S., Australia, and Sweden.


The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories

By Christine Sneed

Bloomsbury, 2016

Christine Sneed is an astute observer of contemporary life, as she demonstrated in her debut collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and her 2015 novel, Paris, He Said, which dissected a complicated May-December relationship. In her latest collection, she probes the contrast between expectation and reality, and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about who we are, what we want, and the choices we make. The characters in these stories are flawed but recognizably human and they earn our compassion. And while Sneed exposes the truth about them, she clearly feels empathy for their all-too-familiar struggles. Small but irrevocable actions occur and lives are changed.

The opening “Beach Vacation” captures a mother-son relationship in a moment of transition, as the mother realizes her high school senior son is no longer the boy she adored but instead has become a young man she doesn’t recognize. Every decision involves a battle of wills. He keeps secrets from her. He treats her with indifference or disdain.

When she discovers him by the hotel pool, talking to a bikini-clad older woman, it hits her. “When had it happened? she wondered. When had he become a boy who felt that his mother did nothing but limit him, that she lived only to hold him back, to keep him from experiencing the things adults claimed as their inalienable right? He wanted sex, possibly love, and he was determined to have them, whether she wanted him to or not.”

Sneed takes a metaphysical and drily humorous tack in “Roger Weber Would Like to Stay,” in which vaguely dissatisfied 39-year-old Merilee is visited regularly by a debonair ghost — a former concert pianist — who offers observations on her thoughts and desires, as well as critiques of her pleasant but dull year-long relationship with a divorced accountant. There is a hint of Shirley Jackson-style darkness as Merilee attempts to figure out what is real and what is not, and more importantly, whether she is sane.

What really stands out in this collection is the range of Sneed’s content and style. “The All-New, True CV” shows off her skills in biting social commentary and satire. “The Prettiest Girls” follows a location scout to Mexico, where he encounters an aspiring actress who views him as a ticket to stardom. “Clear Conscience” immerses readers in a family drama centered on a particularly thorny ethical dilemma. The title story revisits the protagonist from Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts, as he labors under the weight of his actor father’s legend and persona.

Sneed’s stories are serious and shaded, as if sketched with charcoal, but they move quickly, highlighted by her realistic dialogue and frequent insights into the human heart.


The Golden Age

By Joan London

Europa Editions, 2016

Joan London is a highly regarded author in her home of Australia. She deserves to be better known everywhere else. She has a gift for depicting both character and place, and her prose style is uncluttered yet elegant. In her latest novel, The Golden Age, she examines the polio epidemic that began in 1949 and continued for a decade.

Twelve-year-old Frank Gold, a recent immigrant to Perth from Hungary, is sent to the children’s hospital of the title to recover, and there he befriends another patient, Elsa Briggs. They keep up each other’s spirits through the vicissitudes of the dread disease and its various treatments, including the iron lung. The Golden Age is also the story of their parents, who cope with their children’s illness and life in Australia in varying ways. Frank’s mother was a famous pianist in Budapest and remains in denial that their life is in uncultured Western Australia now. His father, Meyer, is a hard-working delivery man who is grateful for the second chance Australia has given him and his family, and he intends to adapt and thrive, whatever the cost. Elsa’s mother, a perfectionist, struggles to accept that Elsa will not be the daughter she wants. Her attentions shift to Elsa’s siblings, making Frank’s friendship ever more valuable. The director of The Golden Age, Sister Penny, serves as a bridge between parents and their sick children, and her relationship with one parent becomes particularly important. Though dedicated to her charges, she has her own vulnerabilities.

This is an absorbing and deeply compassionate novel by an author who deserves a much wider audience. When you read it, you will see why it won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, The Patrick White Literary Award, The Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, and The New South Wales Premier’s People’s Choice Award.


Bertrand Court

By Michelle Brafman

Prospect Park Books, 2016

Just coincidentally, Bertrand Court is another book with a distinctly Jewish sensibility. Brafman’s novel-in-stories immerses us in the lives of the suburban Washington, D.C. street’s residents and their relatives and business partners. She combines old-fashioned character-based storytelling with a raft of compelling contemporary issues that move the plots along crisply.

At the center of the book are the intermarried Solonsky and Weiss families, whose lives are a tangled host of vines climbing up the family tree. We start in the early-to-mid 1990s, where we meet the three Solonsky siblings: Hannah, who is pregnant again after struggling with miscarriages in her effort to conceive a third child (“Baby #5” narrates the opening story) and whose husband, Danny Weiss, has his hands full; Eric, whose intermarriage to Maggie presents complications when their first child is born; and Amy, the family free spirit who might be ready to settle down. The Solonsky grandmothers, Goldie and Sylvia, have had a close but fraught relationship; Brafman moves back to the 1930s to reveal what set their conflicts in motion, as well as to introduce a family heirloom that plays a key role many decades later.

Two caveats: 1) There is a lot of Jewish culture here (but not much Judaism per se), so non-Jews may find some of the stories both somewhat confusing and potentially informative. But it is not central to the conflicts, which are universal and thus very recognizable. 2) This is really more of an interconnected series of stories than a novel, so there is a lot of variation in time, place, and circumstance, and the book doesn’t wrap up as neatly as one would expect in a traditional novel.

Bertrand Court is a family melodrama elevated by its social and psychological concerns and Brafman’s sensitive characterizations of complex and flawed humans.


Quicksand

By Malin Persson Giolito

Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Other Press, 2016

Before becoming a writer, Malin Persson Giolito was a lawyer with the largest firm in Scandinavia and an official with the European Commission in Belgium. Quicksand, her fourth novel but her first translated into English, is a riveting and disturbing read, an indictment of modern Swedish society, from childrearing and education to immigration and the justice system.

Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg has been in jail for nine months, awaiting trial for her part in a massacre at her high school that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Quicksand is superficially a courtroom drama, but that is just the access point for Persson Giolito to explore the circumstances that led the outstanding student from a good family to a series of decisions that have made her a pariah across Sweden. Quicksand reminded me of the controversial 2007 murder case of American foreign exchange student Amanda Knox and two recent novels loosely based on her experiences, Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois and Abroad by Katie Crouch.

Quicksand stands out for several reasons: Maja’s absorbing (and self-absorbed) narration, the ruthless psychological portrayal of the main characters, the crisp and realistic dialogue, and Persson Giolito’s incisive analytical powers. You will tear through this 495-page “case study” with the single-minded intensity that only the best novels produce. And it will give you much to ponder in the weeks and months after you have read it.


The Book of Esther

By Emily Barton

Tim Duggan Books/Crown, 2016

While dystopian fiction is all the rage now, there is something to be said for “alternative history” fiction, too. These speculative novels ask the “what if?” questions we all wonder about or, in some cases, pose questions that have never occurred to most of us but are intriguing and thought-provoking.

Emily Barton imagines an alternative 1942, in which a nation of warrior Jews called the Khazars exists between Germania and the city of Stalingrad, both literally and figuratively. The story is set in motion when Germania invades Khazaria, and Esther, the daughter of a high-ranking government official flees across the steppe to find a legendary village of kabbalists who can turn her into a man. She believes this is the only way she will be able to persuade her people that the invaders don’t just mean war, they seek the elimination of the Khazars, and to lead them into battle for their very existence.

The Book of Esther is a multi-genre hybrid fiction that is equal parts speculative, historical, literary, and feminist. This is a polarizing novel that, more than most, can only be judged in the reading, not from a synopsis like this. While not everything she attempts is successful (it rarely is in this type of novel), she deserves credit for her inventive creative vision.

THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES explores female friendship amid cultural conflicts in Jordan

The Confusion of Languages

By Siobhan Fallon

Putnam — June 27, 2017

$26.00, 324 pages

Siobhan Fallon made a huge impression on me with her debut story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), about the experience of military wives living at Fort Hood, Texas, and the men who leave them and later return in a range of challenging mental and physical states.

Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood and now resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, returns with her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring uprising in May 2011. It is the story of two American women whose military husbands work at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Cassie and Dan Hugo have been in Jordan for a while and are asked to serve as mentors to a newly-arrived (and newly married) couple, Margaret and Creighton (known as Crick) Brickshaw. Cassie has mixed feelings about mentoring Margaret, but she soon decides that a new friend, with a baby in tow, would be a good thing so far from home.

The plot is set in motion when Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor rear-end car accident. Margaret is astonished the local police officer ‘s brief, on-the-spot investigation concludes that the accident was her fault. Cassie’s explanation that in Jordan the woman is always at fault, as a legal and cultural matter, falls on deaf ears. An embassy guard, called to the scene by Cassie, explains that Margaret simply needs to go to the police station to complete some paperwork admitting fault, and the embassy will take care of everything after that. It’s Jordan, and they do things differently here. Upset, Margaret decides to go home first so she can change, feed her baby, and then go to the police station while Cassie babysits. But the hours pass and Cassie does not hear from Margaret, nor does Margaret respond to Cassie’s increasingly perplexed and agitated texts. Cassie begins to worry about her naive and emotional friend.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. 

Before long, the plot of The Confusion of Languages becomes as much a thriller as a cultural exploration and character study. Fallon tells the story through Cassie’s first-person narrative over the afternoon and evening of May 13, 2011, and Margaret’s journal, which Cassie discovers and then reads while she waits for Margaret to return from the police station.

Cassie soon learns that Margaret has a secret that could change everything.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet. Slender, blonde, and pretty, and seemingly extroverted, she is in fact carrying two heavy burdens. Margaret is loquacious, effusive, kind-hearted, and curious, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. But, as we soon learn from her journal, she is also introspective and something of an intellectual.

She is struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer and an oppressive childhood. She has placed all her hopes on her new life with Crick and their baby, Mather. Crick, the ultimate warrior, is trying to fulfill his sense of duty toward Margaret despite complications in their past.

Can this small-town girl find her way as a military spouse in the Middle East? She finds life in Jordan chaotic and difficult to understand. So, at the same time she is studying Arabic, she is also obsessed with the meaning of words in English, writing their definitions in her journal. She attempts to impose order on the chaos of the world and her life, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan’s complicated culture are often met with stubborn resistance and her determination to do things her way.

Cassie is coping with her own sense of loss in not being able to have a baby, and it is driving a wedge between her and Dan. Cassie is methodical and reasonable where Margaret is impulsive and unpredictable. Their friendship is erratic, moving from a developing intimacy to perplexing distance without any pattern.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan and to teach her about Jordanian culture, especially expectations regarding male-female interactions, are often met with stubborn resistance and Margaret’s determination to do things her way, without concern for Jordanian and Muslim customs. Margaret is certain that her warmth, kindness, and American “can do” approach will be sufficient in every situation.

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions.

But she is mistaken. Her innocent attempts to form friendships with Saleh, the maintenance man in her apartment building, and Hassan, a widower who works as one of the entrance guards at the embassy and who teaches her words and phrases in Arabic, lead to confusion and misunderstandings that go beyond “the confusion of languages.”

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions. Margaret eventually rejects Cassie as her guide to Jordan, preferring to find her own way and place her trust in her new father-figure of a friend.

The Confusion of Languages probes the ramifications of these misunderstandings and the characters’ good intentions gone awry. Both Cassie and Margaret are good people, but they are flawed and deeply human. Here, as always in good fiction, that is what makes for a memorable novel. Although their alternating perspectives create a rich, insightful character development, I was occasionally distracted by the nature of Margaret’s journal, which seems overly sophisticated and literary for a journal but, admittedly, does make for a more compelling read. Fallon is reportedly now at work on a novel about foreign laborers in Abu Dhabi, so she appears to be carving out a niche as the novelist of the expat experience in the Middle East.

Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name.