SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family amid a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00


In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, butAn Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”

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Summer recommended reading: Four novels to help you defeat the dog days of August

Summer’s not over yet! Here are four books being published in August that you should investigate.


a-wife-of-noble-character

Yvonne Georgina Puig — A Wife of Noble Character (August 2)

Inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Puig’s debut novel is set among the wealthy Houston oil set. Vivienne Cally, now 30, is a big fish who has been swimming in these protected waters until she is challenged intellectually and emotionally by Preston Duffin, who has long known and admired Vivienne from a social and cultural distance. A recent architecture grad, he draws Vivienne’s interest, at which point matters become complicated. Puig’s pointed social commentary elevates A Wife of Noble Character beyond what might otherwise be a stock comedy of manners.

The Book That Matters Most

Ann Hood — The Book That Matters Most (August 9)

Hood, the author of An Italian Wife and The Red Thread and the recipient of awards for her writing on food, travel, and spirituality, this time out pens a tribute to the power of books to save us. When Ava’s 25-year marriage ends, she joins a book group for company. Assigned to share “the book that matters most” to her, she revisits a childhood favorite that helped her through the deaths of her mother and sister. The book, and her search for the obscure author, lead her to revelations that lead Ava and her daughter Maggie, struggling with romantic disillusionment in Paris, to rebuild their lives.

Shining Sea

Anne Korkeakivi — Shining Sea (August 9)

Korkeakivi demonstrates that a gifted author can tell an epic family saga in 300 pages, something about which I was initially skeptical. As in her debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, she writes beautifully and with compassion and insight into the relationships and events that shape our lives. Spend some time with the Gannon family and experience family and societal change and growth from 1962 to 2015 (with flashbacks to WWII). Shining Sea is like Jane Smiley’s Hundred Year Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age) in one book.

Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson — Another Brooklyn (August 9)

Woodson, among our best YA writers for the past two decades (with many awards to her credit), moves into adult fiction with Another Brooklyn, which examines that time in one’s life when friendship and neighborhood are all. Woodson’s young protagonist, August, moves toward adulthood as she learns that there is another Brooklyn, the other, grimier, side of the shiny coin that is her childhood.

SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family and a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00


In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, but An Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”

Summer Fiction Preview, Part 2 (July-August): 14 Books You Don’t Want to Miss

Last week I posted my summer fiction preview for June, a month that was totally booked and thus deserved a post of its own. Here are another 14 books worth looking into.


June 28

Invincible Summer

Alice Adams — Invincible Summer

This debut novel has a superficial breeziness that makes it seem like a beach read, but below the surface lies an insightful story of four friends (two female, two male, including a brother-sister pair) striving to make their way into and through adulthood in a confounding world. Set in England and Europe over the past 20 years, Invincible Summer follows the characters as they set off on careers in banking, physics, and the arts, all the while trying to maintain their friendship, find love, and cope with setbacks both personal and professional.


July 12

99 STORIES-092415.indd

Joy Williams — Ninety-Nine Stories of God

Williams received a lot of well-deserved attention last fall when The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories was published. Her dark stories concern people who are struggling with issues large and small, and her razor sharp dialogue, acerbic wit, and highly polished prose have won her many admirers among the literati, but, sadly, she is still not widely known. In her new collection, a slim volume of short “flash fiction” pieces, she directs her laser beam sensibility on characters experiencing psychically and physically violent confrontations with God.

Heartbreaker

Maryse Meijer — Heartbreaker: Stories

Meijer’s broken glass stories have been compared to the work of Amelia Gray, Laura van den Berg, and Lindsay Hunter. The selections in her debut collection share Joy Williams’ obsession with misfits trying to make sense of a world that seems unhinged and uncaring. These are spare and unsparing glimpses into hidden lives.

Pond

Claire-Louise Bennett — Pond

Pond is generating some pre-publication buzz for its Proustian, observation-based narrative of a young woman’s life in a coastal Irish village. Early reviews are ecstatic: Publishers Weekly calls it “strange, unique, and undeniably wonderful,” Jenny Offill says it is “ferociously intelligent and funny,” and Colum McCann sees echoes of William Gaddis, Lydia Davis, and the Irish writers Samuel Beckett and Edna O’Brien. High praise indeed for this short, sharp shock of a book.

Sarong Party Girls

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan — Sarong Party Girls

Described as both Emma and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in modern Asia, Tan’s debut concerns the lives of four young Singaporean women on the hunt for an ang moh (Caucasian man) with whom they can have “Chanel” (mixed-race) babies, both of which confer status on a local girl. Tan probes the economic and cultural contradictions inherent in rapidly changing Singapore and captures the essence of the city-state with her hybrid Singlish prose.


July 19

Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn — Here Comes the Sun

Dennis-Benn, from Jamaica, digs deep under her home’s tourist-covered beaches in her depiction of the real Jamaica. Like Kristina Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise (2013), about the lives of Hawaiians away from the hotels and beaches, Here Comes the Sun depicts the contrast between the Jamaica experienced by tourists and the one in which its people live and love. Older sister Margot has been working at a Montego Bay resort, trying to get ahead and send her younger sister, Thandi, to school so she can avoid having to make the kind of compromises Margot has made. A proposed resort development holds the promise of economic freedom for Margot while it threatens the girls’ village. Dennis-Benn has written a potent portrayal of womanhood, sisterhood, dreams, love, and betrayal in a place that outsiders view as paradise but which locals view simply as home, the place in which they live their complex lives.

Monterey Bay

Lindsay Hatton — Monterey Bay

Remember Doc Ricketts from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row? He’s back in this coming of age story set in 1940 and featuring an independent 15-year-old named Margot Fiske, who is fascinated by Monterey Bay’s marine life and the local marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, for whom she begins to work as his sketch artist. Margot’s father, a visionary businessman, soon recruits Ricketts to aid him in developing an aquarium project. Steinbeck plays a minor role as Ricketts’ best friend. Hatton is equally adept at depicting Margot’s blossoming emotional life and the denizens of the colorful Cannery Row of that era. Monterey Bay captures the past and present of this famous literary location.


July 26

The Muse

Jessie Burton — The Muse

Burton burst onto the literary scene two years ago with the critically acclaimed novel The Miniaturist, set in Amsterdam during the Renaissance. She returns with a premise that is beginning to sound tired: a mysterious painting is discovered in the present and leads back to the compelling story of its creation and creator. In this case, the novel begins in 1967 with a Caribbean immigrant who works in a London museum. The back story is set in a small Spanish village in 1936 and involves the daughter of a wealthy Jewish art dealer from Vienna and a local brother and sister, who work as a housekeeper and painter. Everything ties together in intriguing ways.

The Unseen World

Liz Moore — The Unseen World

Moore’s novel is the story of 12-year-old prodigy Ada Sibelius. Home-schooled by her secretive and eccentric scientist father, who takes her to work with him every day, Ada is challenged when her father begins to suffer from dementia, leaving her emotionally stranded. She determines to investigate her father’s past to find answers to his present and, surprisingly, her own. Early rave reviews from Tea Obreht, Robin Black, Jami Attenberg, Ann Hood, and Dana Spiotta suggest that this mysterious coming of age story is a work of first-rate literary fiction.

Leaving Lucy Pear

Anna Solomon — Leaving Lucy Pear

Solomon impressed with her first novel, The Little Bride, in 2011. In her sophomore novel, she explores what happens when a young unwed mother in 1917 Massachusetts abandons her baby to create a new life elsewhere, only to return after a decade and encounter the woman who is raising that child. Solomon deftly probes the complex web of relationships with her daughter Lucy at the center, as well as the contradictory post-WWI culture of the Roaring Twenties in New England. Recommended for those who value crystalline prose from a novelist with a poet’s eye for close observation and ear for language.


August 2

a-wife-of-noble-character

Yvonne Georgina Puig — A Wife of Noble Character

Inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Puig’s debut novel is set among the wealthy Houston oil set. Vivienne Cally, now 30, is a big fish who has been swimming in these protected waters until she is challenged intellectually and emotionally by Preston Duffin, who has long known and admired Vivienne from a social and cultural distance. A recent architecture grad, he draws Vivienne’s interest, at which point matters become complicated. Puig’s pointed social commentary elevates A Wife of Noble Character beyond what might otherwise be a stock comedy of manners.


August 9

The Book That Matters Most

Ann Hood — The Book That Matters Most

Hood, the author of An Italian Wife and The Red Thread and the recipient of awards for her writing on food, travel, and spirituality, this time out pens a tribute to the power of books to save us. When Ava’s 25-year marriage ends, she joins a book group for company. Assigned to share “the book that matters most” to her, she revisits a childhood favorite that helped her through the deaths of her mother and sister. The book, and her search for the obscure author, lead her to revelations that lead Ava and her daughter Maggie, struggling with romantic disillusionment in Paris, to rebuild their lives.

Shining Sea

Anne Korkeakivi — Shining Sea

Korkeakivi demonstrates that a gifted author can tell an epic family saga in 300 pages, something about which I was initially skeptical. As in her debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, she writes beautifully and with compassion and insight into the relationships and events that shape our lives. Spend some time with the Gannon family and experience family and societal change and growth from 1962 to 2015 (with flashbacks to WWII). Shining Sea is like Jane Smiley’s Hundred Year Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age) in one book.

Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson — Another Brooklyn

Woodson, among our best YA writers for the past two decades (with many awards to her credit), moves into adult fiction with Another Brooklyn, which examines that time in one’s life when friendship and neighborhood are all. Woodson’s young protagonist, August, moves toward adulthood as she learns that there is another Brooklyn, the other, grimier, side of the shiny coin that is her childhood.

Guest blogger Anne Korkeakivi: My Summer Without Men (Writers)

Anne Korkeakivi

This is a re-post of a guest essay originally published on September 22, 2014. 

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The YaleReview, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK),Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.) 

 

This summer, I hit the road.

Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.

Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.

These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.

When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.

I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.

This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.

  1. A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
  2. Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
  3. A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
  4. During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
  5. The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
  6. The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
  7. After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
  8. A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
  9. A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
  10. A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
  11. A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
  12. A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
  13. A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
  14. A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.

Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.

If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.

If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)

Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?

Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.

Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6.Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.

Guest blogger Anne Korkeakivi: My Summer Without Men (Writers)

Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK), Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.) 

 

This summer, I hit the road.

Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.

Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.

These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.

When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.

I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.

This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.

  1. A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
  2. Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
  3. A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
  4. During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
  5. The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
  6. The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
  7. After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
  8. A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
  9. A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
  10. A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
  11. A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
  12. A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
  13. A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
  14. A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.

Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.

If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.

If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)

Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?

Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.

Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

 

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer?

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. Inspired by a recent post on Robin Kall’s Reading with Robin blog, I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?

2. What are you currently reading?

3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the nine responses that follow, each of which includes a book or books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Check back later this week for the second installment of Authors’ Summer Reading, featuring Katie Crouch, Kimberly Elkins, Patry Francis, Mira Jacob, Dylan Landis, Rebecca Makkai,  Virginia Pye, and others. 

summer book preview clarke winspear morris lusbader mccollough o

Laura McBride

I really enjoyed Molly Wizenberg’s memoir Delancey and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I am loving Euphoria by Lily King right now, and I am looking forward to Long Man by Amy Greene, Funny Once by Antonya Nelson, and The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai.

[My review of We Are Called to Rise is here.]

Kahakauwila Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila

I just finished the novel The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translation by Anne McLean), a lyric meditation on what it means to be Colombian, on fate and death, and at the same time, it reads like a murder mystery.

I’m reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony right now. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me this long! She handles that close third so intimately that I’m taking notes for my own first person narration.

And finally, next up is Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. His nonfiction is thoughtful and lovely, so I’m looking forward to this first novel of his.

[My review of This is Paradise is here.]

laline-paull-the-bees

Laline Paull

Recently impressed by Horses of God by Mahi Binebine (translated from the French by Lulu Norman, Serpent’s Tail Press). Brutal, elegant, truthful imagining of the life of a young suicide bomber, from beyond the grave. Eloquent and compassionate, it asserts how poverty, ignorance and inequality, ultimately breeds atrocity. Not a beach book.

Also impressed by Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Atlantic). Wonderful biographically accurate imagining of the life of E.M. (Morgan) Forster, before he wrote Passage to India. About class, empire, love, loss, and the mysterious alchemical process of writing. Believe it or not, a beach book – for me, anyway.

And I must mention the delightful The Vacationers by Emma Straub, and not just because of her amazing review of The Bees in the New York Times Review of Books — but because it is a sly delight, with characters as real and familiar as Armistead Maupin’s, and a delicate structure full of tension, pathos, and comic irony.  Loved it.

Next on my reading list: Her by Harriet Lane, and a lot of non-fiction research for my second novel, which I’m going to keep to myself for a bit.

And I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, as my 15-year-old daughter demanded I do, so that we could discuss it. Jodi Picoult does for emotions what Lee Child does for the thriller — just keeps you turning the pages. Not sure how much I loved it — but I most definitely did admire her story-telling ability, which is brilliant. And even though I resent it a little, because I wasn’t love-love-loving the book, I did actually cry.

[My review of The Bees is here.]

2013-07-10-JessicaBlau  Wonder Bread Summer

Jessica Anya Blau

I just read Let Me See It by James Magruder. Fabulous. Deeply sad but also very funny. About two gay men coming of age in the era of AIDS. I also just read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe. Charming, funny, and sweet letters written by a London nanny in the early 1980s.

Currently reading Patti Smith’s biography, Just Kids, and loving it. When I’m done I’ll be reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, The Signature of All Things.

[My review of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is here.]

qualities-of-wood-pb-   Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White 

A book that recently impressed me, and in my opinion did not receive nearly the attention it deserved when it was released in May of this year, is Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist. It’s a unique novel that reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Both novels get inside the mind of someone living by, for, and through books; both maintain a sort of nostalgia for words and stories and both speak to current state of affairs between burgeoning technology and the printed word. The story concerns Lena, the sole transcriptionist of a fictional newspaper. She spends her days mostly alone, transcribing stories that come over the wires, and she relates pretty much everything that happens to books she’s read. When a blind woman with whom she had a brief encounter is killed by zoo lions, Lena becomes determined to find out more about what happened. It’s a timely, multi-faceted novel that will appeal to anyone who has spent a life in books.

I’m currently reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but before you become too impressed with my erudite summer selection, I will tell you that I’m operating at about a 70% comprehension rate reading this book. I don’t know what the problem is—I had a minor in history, after all (!)—and normally love historical fiction. Maybe it’s the huge cast of characters, most of whom are named Anne, Mary, John or Thomas, or the way the book jumps from place to place. But it’s something about the style, too. In and out of Cromwell’s thoughts, confusing perspective, pesky pronouns. Every so often, a paragraph begins with “He” and I have no idea who she’s talking about. Most of the time, it’s Cromwell, but still, it drives me crazy. This book is a rollercoaster for me; there are times when I think it’s utterly brilliant and other times when I’m not sure how I’ll finish the next five pages.

Next up is book two in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, so hopefully, I’ll have found a groove with Mantel’s style by then.

[My review of The Qualities of Wood is here.]

Vanessa Blakeslee Train Shots

Vanessa Blakeslee

Last month I was in residence as an Edward F. Albee fellow and devoured several collections by Alice Munro that I’d never gotten to: Dear Life, The Beggar Maid, Runaway, The Moons of Jupiter. To me, Munro is always impressive for her time-jumps, her use of dreams and subplot devices, and the sheer breathtaking force of her characters’ illuminations. But The Beggar Maid impressed me the most, for how those stories could be read as distinctly separate but when assembled, achieve the effect of a novel so naturally, without a hint of strain. As someone who is wrestling with two different novel-in-stories projects for several years, I’m in awe.

I’m currently reading two books by Pamela Erens, The Understory and The Virgins, as a review assignment for Kenyon Review Online.

I’m eager to read Edan Lepucki’s California and the short stories of the Russian Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Bunin, which another writing fellow at the Albee Barn recently recommended. I’ll also be revisiting Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders for an upcoming podcast at The Drunken Odyssey with John King.

[My review of Train Shots is here.]

Sand Queen   Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

I have just finished Abide By Me, by Elizabeth Strout, a lovely novel about the evil powers of gossip and the struggles of a good if simple man to stay that way. Strout is very good and getting to the heart of people in a few swift strokes, and encapsulating the culture of a small town.

Right now, I’m reading Sabina Murray’s collection of stories about the Philippines in World War Two, called The Caprices. I’m truly impressed by how well she captures the sinister absurdity of war and how she brings to life this obscure part of history. She inhabits her male characters brilliantly, and every story shows off a different voice and tone. The book won the PEN Faulkner when it came out. I can see why.

Next up is Orphan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I was just in Istanbul and want to keep reading him.

[My review of Sand Queen is here.]

Ronlyn Domingue   the-chronicle-of-secret-riven

Ronlyn Domingue

Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne. So I’m blatantly giving attention to one of my best friends here. Mary writes in several genres, and her first poetry chapbook released this summer. It’s a spectacular mix of fairy tale retellings and a woman’s reflections about her mother. Author Jeannine Hall Gailey describes the poems as “at the nexus of science and mythology.”

The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is on my stack for research purposes. Along with the myths—written in a serious yet descriptive style—Graves includes the sources where he found the myths and comments to explain or expand on the narrative. Every time I pick it up, I keep thinking it’s time for us to evolve into a new era of myths without so much power-over, rape, and vengeance.

Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo. My mom gave me this book because I love bees. It makes for quirky, relaxing night reading and, as a bonus, lets me get some enjoyable research done at the same time. Fun fact…when bees fly, the sound of their wings makes the note B natural.

[My review of The Chronicle of Secret Riven is coming soon!]

An Unexpected Guest   Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi
Impressed, in an unfortunate way: I’ve read many excellent books this past year, but in early summer, I hit a rut where I managed to read five thoroughly disappointing novels in a row. The experience reminded me what a delicate balancing act writing fiction is.

I am currently reading an ARC of Michelle Bailat-Jones’s beautiful novel, Fog Island Mountains, winner of The Center for Fiction’s 2013 Christopher Doheny Award.

Pulling one book off my TBR shelf is scary, a bit like that old game Pick Up Sticks. Will they all tumble? I *think* next up will be Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

[My review of An Unexpected Guest is here.]