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.

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Author Christine Sneed on The Pleasure of Influence

Christine Sneed by Adam Tinkham

Every day, many times a day in some cases, I find my thoughts turning to the work of a few fiction writers whose books I feel an almost romantic attachment to.  This list of literary idols changes on occasion depending on what I’ve been reading or teaching in the past year or two.  A writer whose work I’ve just read will join it, and another will step back into the shadows, though each of these admired novelists and poets drifts in and out of view on many days like clouds floating by in a sometimes-blue, sometimes-gray sky.

During graduate school and the years immediately following it, I became fully aware of the influence these writers exerted, men and women who were near-constant, benign specters that circulated in and out of my thoughts. The first two were Jim Harrison and Alice Munro.  As a poetry MFA student at Indiana University in the mid-90s, I often thought about the work of Dean Young and Lynn Emanuel, two poets I wished desperately to emulate.  At the time I first read their work, I was only a couple of years out of college and not yet – embarrassing as it is to acknowledge in these polarizing times – politically aware or engaged with the world in a way that extended beyond my own comfortable frame of reference.  I was beginning to learn to think abstractly, and was also making my first, awkward attempts to imagine lives and points of view different from my own.

Needless to say, I wasn’t writing poetry anything like Young’s and Emanuel’s, two geniuses whose poems still make me feel an almost maudlin gratitude for the experiential possibility and sentiment and language that their work presented to me in my mid-twenties.  Their words woke me up, I realize now, almost twenty years later, and this is the same thing that the short stories and novels of the fiction writers who keep company with each other in my head do, too.

In the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking every single day about the work of Scott Spencer, a writer whose third novel is the intensely intelligent, sensual, and devastating Endless Love (a 1979 National Book Award finalist).  This book makes the kind of emotional and psychological impact that devoted readers are likely to encounter maybe once a year.  Its point-of-view character, David Axelrod, is seventeen when the catastrophic house fire that he describes at the novel’s start occurs, a fire that he purposely set in order to alert his adored, off-limits girlfriend (by paternal decree) and her family to the flames. David didn’t, however, expect his small porch fire to become a full-blown conflagration.  With his confiding, reasonable-sounding voice, David is probably the most skillful rendering of an unreliable narrator that I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve read several of Spencer’s other novels, e.g. Men in Black (which is of no relation to the movie franchise), The Rich Man’s Table, Willing, and A Ship Made of Paper, and the writing is often very funny in addition to being beautiful and smart.  His books burst with so many moments of linguistic brilliance. Below are a few of my favorite sentences from the opening pages of Willing:

“I was a face in the crowd, a penitent on the edge of a Renaissance painting, a particularly graceful skater in a Breughel, the guy in the stands at the World Series…his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief during the singing of the national anthem.”

“I carried my desire within me like a tray filled with too many little cups of ceremonial wine: one false step and the whole thing comes crashing down.”

“Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.” (That lunch bag does me in every time – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used as a color before now.)

Another writer with Chicago ties (Spencer grew up on the south side of the city and quite a bit of Endless Love is set in the Hyde Park-University of Chicago neighborhood) is Rosellen Brown, who writes poetry and prose with equal genius.  Her novels-in-verse, Cora Fry and Cora Fry’s Pillowbook, are, in some ways, like a literary, small-town, page-bound Sex and the City (forgive me if you’re reading this, Rosellen; I love Sex and the City, and Cora, maybe, would too?).  And then, her novels, among them, Before and After, Autobiography of My Mother, and Tender Mercies (no relation to the Robert Duvall movie) are all so different and ambitious and alive.  As for the short story form, “How to Win” is frequently anthologized, and is included in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century.

It’s the quality of aliveness that I’m always looking for in every poet’s or novelist’s work.

Two other writers who are frequently in my thoughts: Penelope Fitzgerald and Mavis Gallant.  I read The Blue Flower (one of Fitzgerald’s later novels and the one that got her noticed more widely by American readers) about fifteen years ago, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know a novel could be like this. How did she do this?”  The Blue Flower is set in the late 1700s and is based on the life of the German Romantic poet Novalis.  It is so witty, smart, and wry, so of-the-moment, it seemed to me, that the events recounted in this novel (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award) could have been set in the mid-90s, when Fitzgerald was actually writing it.   Mavis Gallant – if you haven’t read any of her work yet, I envy you your discovery.  I suggest starting with Across the Bridge or her marvelous New York Review Books Classic collected stories, Paris Stories, with a foreword by Michael Ondaatje.

I remember Martin Amis describing his relationship with his favorite books and their authors in his memoir Experience (he’s another writer I’ve been obsessed with – for one, his 1995 novel The Information is a wild and amazing book!)  He wrote that a quality he loves about books is that they’re always there waiting for him, like old friends.  Even in the middle of the night, he can go to his bookcases and, reassuringly, find the books he loves.

How comforting to know that we have these friends, that we have a whole set of voices and experiences waiting to be heard and lived (again, if we’re rereading) whenever the impulse strikes us.

Christine Sneed‘s third book, the novel Paris, He Said, was published on May 5 by Bloomsbury. Her first book, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her second book is the novel Little Known Facts, published in 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and a number of other journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University. Twitter:@ChristineSneed  
Christine Sneed photo by Adam Tinkham