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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THE NATURAL WAY OF THINGS imagines a world in which misogyny is taken to new extremes

Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of Things

By Charlotte Wood

Europa Editions: June 28, 2016

$17.00, 230 pages


Summer is seen as a time to read light-hearted, romantic novels or thrillers. Something to read on the plane or at the beach. But just as some moviegoers seek out serious dramas during the summer special effects blockbuster season, some readers still crave serious fiction with something important to say. One cannot live on genre fiction alone (can one?).

The Natural Way of Things fits the bill. Australian novelist Charlotte Wood has written a novel set in the near future that is nevertheless a story of and for these times. It is in the narrowest sense a dystopian novel, in that it describes a circumstance that does not yet exist but that requires very little suspension of disbelief to accept. It is this close to being plausible. It has already made a big impression in Wood’s home of Australia, where it was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize as the best novel by an Australian woman.

The story begins as two young women, Yolanda and Verla, awaken from a drug-induced sleep to find themselves prisoners of some sort. They have no idea where they are, who is responsible, or how they got there. Nor do they know why they are in this silent place. Before long, they discover that they are on an isolated, abandoned sheep station in the Australian bush, along with eight other girls in their late teens and twenties. They begin to recognize a few of the girls from sex scandals involving powerful and influential men in the government, organized religion, and business world.

What follows is an experiment in punishment and degradation that seems to have been concocted by modern-day sadistic Puritans. The girls are forced to wear old-fashioned farm-type clothing made of coarse materials, including a bonnet and stiff, ill-fitting leather boots. They are given food that would make convicted murderers go on a hunger strike, and suffer near-constant verbal and physical abuse from two young male guards who seem to have little idea what they are doing and no supervision. A young woman prepares the meals. No one appears to be in charge. The girls overhear something about a crew from Hardings returning later. This corporate entity, with which they are unfamiliar, is evidently in charge of the prison camp.

Verla soon realizes the truth of her situation when she recalls the head guard’s misogynistic rant soon after her arrival.  “Boncer’s words return. In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pigs-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.”

The ten girls face their desperate circumstances in varying ways, some believing their families will find them and release them, others soon concluding that no one knows what has happened to them–that they have essentially disappeared–and unsure of whether escape is even possible. Early on, they are marched across the compound, up a long incline through a thicket of trees until they reach a steel fence. Its steady drone can both be heard and felt coming up from the ground. Boncer demonstrates vividly its effect on anyone who tries to escape.

Over time tenuous friendships and fierce rivalries develop. Verla and Yolanda recognize a similar seriousness of purpose in each other and share a mutual acknowledgment that they are the only two who are capable of figuring out a solution to their dilemma. Their responses differ, but their grudging respect for each other leads to a distant, almost wordless partnership based on their determination to survive. The other girls alternate between supporting and terrorizing each other in a situation reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Thoughts of escape are thwarted by various methods. The situation becomes even more desperate when Hardings does not arrive as expected. The tension is ratcheted up as the guards realize they too are trapped on the station and rapidly running out of supplies.

Wood’s narrative is taut and unrelenting; we experience the dire circumstances along with the girls, as both the characters and reader slowly discover what they are dealing with. The Natural Way of Things is a riveting read, as you charge through the book seeking answers to several burning questions. Who is behind the corporation that runs the prison? How long has this been going on? Are they the first girls or just the latest cohort? Will they be released? When, and what will determine that? Will conditions improve or worsen? What is the point of it all? What is going on in the outside world at the same time?

Wood uses the allegory of this group of young women imprisoned for their sexual escapades to explore the contemporary landscape of widespread misogyny, in which victims of rape and sexual assault are put on trial in the media and in the courtroom, and in which reality TV culture is so omnipresent that even a presidential campaign can feel like a bizarre and interminable episode of Punk’d. It is a world where people seem more fully engaged on social media than in their actual lives and where faceless corporations are an inextricable part of our lives, often knowing more about us than we could imagine. But resentment of the gender double standard has reached critical mass and women–and their male allies–are fighting back.

Wood’s prose has a spare, poetic beauty that matches the austere beauty of the Australian bush setting, which is palpable. One can feel the blazing heat, see the dust in the air, and hear the oppressive silence from the isolation. In The Natural Way of Things Wood has created a world that is equal parts Mad Max: Fury Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In the last 50 pages, the narrative increases in pace and intensity, hurtling toward its literally stunning conclusion. Having reached the end, you will sit there slack-jawed, processing the final images and extending them to create your own epilogue.

The Natural Way of Things is a novel that is not easily forgotten. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea–this one has a bit of arsenic in it–but those who crave a gut-punch of a book with crisp writing, memorable characters, and thought-provoking subject matter will find it an immersive and disturbing reading experience.

Chaitali Sen on Real Life Inspiration: Traces of My Grandmother

Chaitali Sen  The Pathless Sky

My grandmother was born in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, in a town named Dinajpur, around the year 1909, according to our calculations. She was married at thirteen to a man in his twenties – my grandfather, who outlived her by almost ten years. She had her first child at sixteen and all together gave birth to seven children, raising six to adulthood. She died in 1971 of heart failure, when I was a year old.

For most of my life, the things I knew about my grandmother were like this: numbers, data, isolated facts. None of the bits I collected from my mother or aunts ever came together to form a full picture, or more accurately, the feeling of grandmother that I craved. I don’t know if she was a warm or affectionate person, if she was reserved, gregarious, fond of being alone or in groups, or even if she was a good mother. My mother sometimes joked that by the time she was born, eighteen years after her eldest sister, my grandmother was already worn out. Seemingly, my aunts did their fair share of parenting, and it’s unclear how much time my mother and grandmother actually spent together.

Only one thing I’ve always heard about my grandmother gives me any idea of who she was. My mother often talks about her accomplishments and how intelligent she was. Without a formal education, she had no choice but to seek outlets for intellectual stimulation in the domestic sphere. She managed the complicated household finances of a large family, at one point in two countries while the family was split between Burma and India. She stayed on site day after day as a new house in Calcutta was being built, supervising its construction down to the mixing of the cement that would become the walls and floors of their new home. She was an accomplished cook who learned dishes from a variety of cuisines, and her intricate embroideries have been passed down to us on bedcovers and handkerchiefs.

Perhaps more surprising is that my grandmother became keenly interested in politics during the movement for India’s independence. She attended meetings with Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali nationalist who disagreed with a non-violent approach to the freedom struggle. He felt the British would only leave by force, and my grandmother believed in his cause so strongly she enlisted my two eldest aunts into the nascent Indian National Army that was forming in Burma. There are photos of my aunts in uniforms, looking formidable, holding bayonets. Bose was later killed in a plane crash, and after Independence, my grandmother satisfied her interest in politics by reading the newspaper every morning on the veranda. Over their cups of tea, she and my grandfather would sit and discuss world events, my grandmother reading the Bengali paper and my grandfather reading the English.

Then, well into her forties, my grandmother insisted on learning how to drive and tackled the chaos of Calcutta traffic to drop her children off at school every morning. My mother can furnish even more examples to make me imagine a woman who was always moving, always hungry, rarely satisfied with what she already knew. I wonder if she thought of herself as an intelligent woman, and if she’d ever had dreams of achieving things beyond her own household.

In my novel, The Pathless Sky, there is a scene in which one of my characters, a young woman named Mariam, is looking at a picture of her grandmother. Her mother is about to tell her something important about her grandfather, but momentarily, it is her grandmother who holds her interest.

She knew a fair bit about her grandmother, come to think of it, little things Mama had told her over the years. She knew her grandmother was very intelligent, through not highly educated. She was a lover of card games, and ruthlessly competitive at them. It was the only time she raised her voice, playing card games.

I was interested in how notions of women’s intelligence are passed down from one generation to another. Mariam is the first woman in her family to attend college, yet she underestimates her own intelligence, and like her mother and grandmother, her own education is unexpectedly stalled when her father becomes ill.  Despite their best efforts, Mariam is forced to continue a pattern of truncated education that has been repeated in her family through the ages. For her grandmother, and mine, marriage was the great disrupter. For Mariam’s mother, it was war and displacement, and for Mariam, illness and finances. The world over, women have channeled into alternative spheres their aspirations to learn and be thoughtful participants in society. It seems my grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She had people in her life who encouraged, or at least tolerated, her attempts at intellectual stimulation. The women in my novel develop similar coping mechanisms, sometimes hiding their intelligence, sometimes expressing it in unexpected ways, sometimes entrusting it to someone else.

Readers ask me if my characters are inspired by people I know.  In a way, of course, they all are. Not their exact blueprints, but their situations, their struggles, their survival skills can probably be found in someone I have known, or in the case of my grandmother, someone I have never known, who has only left traces. I gave Mariam a moment I have had in relation to my grandmother, the handing over of an inheritance not of heirlooms, but of precious information.

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Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky, published by Europa Editions in 2015. Born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and stepson. Her short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in Fiction.