ANOTHER BROOKLYN captures adolescent friendship and coming of age in pristine prose-poetry

Another Brooklyn cover   Jacqueline Woodson AP tlc-tour-host

Another Brooklyn

By Jacqueline Woodson

Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers: Aug. 9, 2016

$22.99, 175 pages


Jacqueline Woodson is a legend in the YA literature world, with a long list of novels that have won every major YA and children’s literature award. Her last novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014. She has distinguished herself by respecting her readers’ intelligence and maturity, addressing issues like race and class, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, gender issues, and adolescent sexuality.

After 20 years, Woodson has written a novel for adults. And while Another Brooklyn retains her trademark concerns and powerful prose style, it digs deeper, pulls fewer punches, and features an adult protagonist looking back at her formative years.

When 35-year-old August returns to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and to sort through his apartment, she has a brief encounter with an old friend on the subway. This launches her into an exploration of her early years in Brooklyn and the power of memory. It’s a useful framing device that carries readers into August’s life story and allows her both to describe her experiences and comment on them with the benefit of 20 years.

When August’s mother descends from depression into despair and serious mental illness her brother Clyde is killed in the Vietnam War, her father decides to flee their home in rural Tennessee and take August and her younger brother back to his hometown of Brooklyn. It is 1973 and August is 8; her brother is four. She doesn’t understand the nature of her mother’s condition and tells herself and her brother that their mother will be coming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” It is an ominous allusion.

Having landed in a dangerous new urban world, August and her brother are kept in the apartment by her father. They are on the inside looking out at the neighborhood and its denizens. August’s eye is caught by three seemingly inseparable girls. In her dreamy mind, they are like the Three Musketeers without D’Artagnan.

“Before they were mine,” August tells us, “I stared at their necks, watched their perfect hands close around jump ropes and handballs, saw their brightly polished nails. . . I watched them, wanting to have what they had. . . But as I watched Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi walk past our window, I was struck with something deeply unfamiliar–a longing to be part of who they were, to link my own arm with theirs and remain that way. Forever.”

In time she meets and is adopted by the trio, who decide August needs to be rescued because, among other things, she has no mother. Sylvia came to Brooklyn the previous year from Martinique, speaking French; she has lost the language but retained an accent. Her parents are intellectuals who want her to become a lawyer. Gigi, from South Carolina, is dark-skinned, with Chinese and mulatto ancestry, and wants to be not just an actress but a movie star. The light-skinned, melancholy Angela dreams of being a dancer.

Woodson  places us inside August’s mind as their circle of friendship and love develops in their pre-teen and teen years. Naive, sheltered August soon learns that Brooklyn is an often desperate place, with varying levels of poverty, wandering hallucinatory junkies, and verbally and physically abusive boys and men seemingly around every corner and in every dark stairwell.

“We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long. We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them–our voices loud, our laughter even louder. But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung out soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.”

The girls share everything: their dreams, their frustrations, their fears, their family difficulties, their crushes on boys. They encourage each other with their words and physical affection ranging from hugs to braiding each other’s hair. The challenges of “adults promising us their own failed futures.” Temptation is everywhere, from junk food and cigarettes to drugs and boys with a lupine look in their eyes.

As they begin the transition to adolescence, August explains, “We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists. We frog-jumped over tree stumps, pulled each other into gushing fire hydrants, learned to dance the Loose Booty to Sly and the Family Stone, hustled to Van McCoy. We bought t-shirts with our names and zodiac signs in iron-on letters. But still, as we slipped deeper into twelve our breasts and butts grew. Our legs got long. Something about the curve of our lips and the sway of our heads suggested more to strangers than we understood. And then we were heading toward thirteen, walking our neighborhood as if we owned it. Don’t even look at us, we said to the boys, our palms up in front of our faces. Look away look away look away!

Woodson captures the 1970s and sense of place with exactitude. I was 14 in 1973 and I grew up 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, but I know these girls; Woodson’s detailed descriptions of the adolescent life at that time ring true.

More importantly, Woodson captures the deep adolescent yearning to become. . . something, someone, and the sense of being lost at sea in the act of trying to create oneself. August never quite grasps that her mother’s absence is permanent, and her ghost haunts her youth and this novel. And there is a sense of foreboding about the girls’ relationship, set off by the adult August’s uncomfortable and purposely brief encounter with Sylvia at the start of the book. There are a thousand things that can cause teenage relationships to go awry and only a handful that hold them together into adulthood with its manifold changes.

August finds a way to navigate through high school and into college and a career, both of which were beyond the younger August’s capability to dream. She becomes someone she never envisioned but seems in many senses to have been destined for. Returning to “another Brooklyn” twenty years later, at age 35, doesn’t quite bring her or the story full circle, for life is not quite that neat and Woodson not that superficial a storyteller.

Like Brown Girl Dreaming, which is written in verse form, Another Brooklyn is as impressionistic as memory; the narrative moves back and forth in time and place through August’s stream of consciousness. Ann Patchett correctly describes Another Brooklyn as “a sort of fever dream.” Woodson’s writing is prose-poetry of the highest order; it begs to be read repeatedly, and aloud. Woodson told NPR’s Lynn Neary in a recent interview that her words have to look and sound a certain way. “I love playing with form, I love playing with sounds,” Woodson said. “I love music and I love writing that has musicality to it. The book does have this kind of jazzy feel to me.”

With Another Brooklyn, Woodson has given us a much-needed look into the lives of four young black girls in 1970s Brooklyn that is universal in its message and appeal. This white, 50-something man who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles found it a deeply affecting read. I suspect that, like its YA predecessors, it will soon be considered a contemporary classic among coming-of-age novels.


tlc logo

You can find the other reviews in the Another Brooklyn blog tour at the following blogs:

Tuesday, August 9th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, August 10th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Thursday, August 11th: 5 Minutes For Books
Friday, August 12th: Books Without Any Pictures
Monday, August 15th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, August 16th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, August 17th: Lit and Life
Thursday, August 18th: Staircase Wit
Friday, August 19th: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Monday, August 22nd: As I Turn the Pages
Wednesday, August 24th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, August 25th: Olduvai Reads
Monday, August 29th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, August 30th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Wednesday, August 31st: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Thursday, September 1st: Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, September 2nd: Life By Kristen
Saturday, September 3rd: The Book Diva’s Reads
Monday, September 5th: Starting Fresh
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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.

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.

24 Authors’ Favorite Books of 2014 (updated 1/4/15)

To wrap up 2014 in a suitable fashion, I asked several writers to share their favorite book of 2014 written by a woman. You’ll want to have your To Be Read list handy so you can jot some additional titles down. Although this completely random selection of writers did not generate a consensus choice, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Robin Black’s Life Drawing, and Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal came up a few times. Active links will take you to my reviews or the author’s guest essays written for Read Her Like an Open Book (RHLAOB). The contributors and I would love to hear your thoughts on their choices — as well as your personal favorites — so we encourage you to leave a comment below. And may 2015 be your best year of reading yet!

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

Three books by women come to mind as great favorites of the year: All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, about a young Vietnamese boy, his pet bear and his little sister, severely deformed  by Agent Orange. Moving and funny and surprising all the way through. Also, Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, a tense and honest book about a woman soldier newly home from war. And a book of short stories about the Philippines in World War Two called The Caprices by Sabina Murray.

Helen Benedict is a novelist and journalist, best known for her writing on injustice and the Iraq War. She is the author of six novels, including Sand Queen (Soho Press, 2011) and The Edge of Eden (Soho Press, 2009). The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2010) and Benedict’s other writings on women at war inspired the award-winning 2012 documentary, The Invisible War. Benedict has been a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism since 1986.  She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Ragdale Foundation, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy, and the Freedom Forum.

 

Robin Black by Deborah BoardmanPhoto by Deborah Boardman

Robin Black

I have had an incredible reading year. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and the Old Filth trilogy by Jane Gardam were both new to me and both – in very different ways – gave me a three book immersion that will stay with me always. But my “you should read this and may not have heard of it yet” choice is An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore, the story of an Amish woman who is taken on a perilous journey from Lancaster County heading to a perhaps illusory Idaho composed of dreams of expansion and seclusion, both. The story is based on Moore’s family history and it’s a powerful, intimate look at a culture into which “foreigners” can rarely glimpse. And for nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim, takes us into an elite “university” in North Korea – speaking of cultures many of us can’t glimpse. It’s informative for sure, and also heartbreaking.

Robin Black is the author of the acclaimed short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) and the novel Life Drawing (2014), which was chosen as the favorite book of 2014 by Beth Kephart and Dylan Landis (see below). Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “On Learning to Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book for Their Wives,” was the second-most read post in 2014. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives outside Philadelphia.

 

 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

Jessica Anya Blau

I was thrilled when I discovered that Dylan Landis’s new book, Rainey Royal, was all about my favorite Landis character, Rainey, a girl who makes some unforgettable cameo appearances in Landis’s first book, the collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This.  In Rainey Royal we follow the title character from age 14 to 26—the years when she is navigating a profoundly messed-up adolescence while experimenting with her tremendous powers of beauty, talent and youth. Rainey is infinitely alluring and sometimes startlingly dreadful. She’s a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew intimately.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of the bestselling novels The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). In May 2014, she was one of the first authors to contribute an essay to RHLAOB, “My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s.”  She grew up in Santa Barbara, California but lives in Baltimore and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.

 

Kim Church

Kim Church

2014 has been an amazing year for books. I can’t single out a favorite, but I’d like to mention a couple that surprised and delighted me:

The Game We Play, a debut story collection by Susan Hope Lanier (Curbside Splendor). Lanier, a photographer, writes with an eye for close-up, using the smallest objects to talismanic effect. These are growing-up stories about characters trying to form themselves when everything around them is deformed. The game conceit that unifies the collection (most obvious in the final story, “At Bat”) is a nod to Lanier’s love of baseball, which she calls “the perfect game because it is complex in its simplicity. There is drama in every pitch if you watch closely enough.” The same could be said of these stories—minutely observed, deceptively simple, emotionally complex.

Are we allowed to mention books by men? If so, I recommend All I Have in This World by Michael Parker (Algonquin), about a couple of down-on-their-luck strangers who go in together on a used Buick Electra. I love the mesmerizing rhythm of Parker’s sentences. And I’m a sucker for stories about unlikely friendships.

Kim Church is the author of Byrd, which was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books and long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Kim earned her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her J.D. degree from UNC School of Law. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in ShenandoahMississippi ReviewPainted Bride Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere.

 

 pamela erens by miriam berkleyPhoto by Miriam Berkley

Pamela Erens

I was taken with so many books published this past year. In fiction, these included An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Life Drawing by Robin Black, The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, Orion’s Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Danceland by Jennifer Pieroni, Life In, Life Out by Avital Gad-Cykman, and Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. In nonfiction: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, The Other Side by Lacey M. Johnson, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, On Immunity by Eula Biss, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.

But if I had to pick the one 2014 book that I have been returning to the most in my thoughts and in conversation, it would be The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The final long essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” knocked me out. It’s an exploration of representations of and beliefs about and the experience of female suffering, and the bottom line is that Jamison made me see her subject anew. She advanced the conversation, so to speak, and it seems to me that books yet to be written are going to be shaped by hers. I want to add that I think that something of the same is true for Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

In 2015, I plan to get to at least two 2014 works in my to-read pile that I know will engage me: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, a follow-up to her powerful 2011 collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan trilogy.

Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was published by Tin House Books in August 2013. It was a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune
Editors’ Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. In April 2014, Tin House Books reissued Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times,Vogue, Elle, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and The Millions. For many years Pamela was an editor at Glamour magazine.

 

 lisa_gornick

Lisa Gornick

My shout out goes to an elegant piece of long-form journalism and literary criticism by Kathryn Schulz, “The Story That Tore Through the Trees,” published in the September 9th issue of New York Magazine.

Schulz masterfully weaves together an account of how Norman Maclean, a retired University of Chicago literature professor, began at 73 what would become his posthumously published and wildly influential Young Men and Fire about the tragic Mann Gulch conflagration; the stories of the thirteen smokejumpers who died in the fire and the three who survived; an examination of the split-second decision of the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge, to light a match and fight the looming flames by encircling himself with those of his own making; and her analysis of how Maclean mythologized the events of that day in a way that  spoke to American themes of conquest and purification, but evaded the fundamental ecology of fire.

“To love a book,” Schulz writes, “is to acknowledge the power of stories to move us; but we should also acknowledge that not every story moves us in the right direction.” Schulz’s story, though, does move us in the right direction. Both an intellectually muscular piece of writing, encompassing science and cultural history, and a classic story of men in battle — the kind of writing usually associated with male writers like John McPhee — her essay lays bare the impact of romanticized notions of masculinity on our views of nature and on policy making. I was inspired that it was written by a woman.

http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/mann-gulch-norman-maclean-2014-9/index5.html

Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador), a novel which touches on the history of the early smokejumpers. Her collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, will be published in June, also with Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Gornick wrote a fascinating essay for RHLAOB about the sources of inspiration behind Tinderbox

 

Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington

My favorite book of the year is Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading – carefully, deliberately and slowly. How does she make this a wonderful read? A master herself, Prose breaks down the process into words, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, character, dialogue, gesture, with brilliant examples culled from hundreds of books. Unlike James Woods’ How Fiction Works, which cites 81 books, only 8 by  women, Prose is much more democratic. Her final chapter, “Reading for Courage,” is worth the price of the book alone.

Laura Harrington spent 25 years writing for the theatre, and in 2008 she received The Kleban Award, given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” She took time off to write her first novel, Alice Bliss, which explores the impact of the Iraq War on the home front through the eyes of a young girl whose father is halfway around the world. Harrington contributed a powerful essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War,” to Read Her Like an Open Book in March 2014. 

 

 Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart

This is an impossible task. I thought 2014 was an exquisite year of work by writers taking broad and beautiful risks.

For compression and the elegance of the time it portrays, Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/12/dear-thiefsamantha-harvey-reflections.html

For a fascinating perspective on a desperately unwinding woman, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/08/nobody-is-ever-missingcatherine-lacey.html

For a book richly steeped in the twin geographies of movable time and malleable possibility, Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/02/wonderlandstacey-derasmo-reflections.html

For a beautifully paced story about the private wants that are rarely spoken, Robin Black’s Life Drawing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/life-drawingrobin-black-reflections.html

For a harrowing and brave and deliciously odd story of a woman who is trying to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/dept-of-speculation-jenny.html

And for a timeless, genre-less autobiography in poetic prose, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

Beth Kephart is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham/Penguin, 2013), Small Damages (Philomel Books, 2012), and Going Over (Chronicle Books, 2014), a YA novel set in Berlin during 1983. Chronicle will publish One Thing Stolen, set in Florence in April 2015. Kephart maintains a blog, Beth Kephart Books, and reviews books for the Chicago Tribune. Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “Urgency. Please.” last August was one of the most-read posts of the year. 

 

 Dylan-Landis

Dylan Landis

Life Drawing, by Robin Black, contains one of the keenest, most distilled passages about marriage I’ve read: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” All of Life Drawing is penetrating, disturbing and, at a couple of points, shocking. It’s the story of friendship and betrayal, told from the point of view of an artist, Gus, whose marriage to a struggling writer, Owen, is shadowed by her past affair. The writing is beautiful, the plot is taut, and the voice is both intimate and wise.

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the linked story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a Newsday Ten Best book.

 

 caroline leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. It’s a raw, gutsy portrait of a dangerous upbringing and of a young woman finding her place in the world. It’s also unlike anything I’ve read before.  Plus, the language is gorgeous.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and seven other novels. Her many essays, stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. Her next novel, Cruel Beautiful World, will be published by Algonquin in 2015. Her guest essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “My Life in Lawsuits,” was one of the top 5 posts in 2014. 

 

 Lisa Lenzo

Lisa Lenzo

From the minute I began reading Making Callaloo in Detroit, I felt as if Lolita Hernandez had taken me by the hand and the rich cadences of her Caribbean characters were leading me with their voices. After I finished the second story, I thought I knew what the next stories would be all about, and I was perfectly pleased to follow Hernandez further, down similar roads. But then the third story took me into a wholly different zone—an auto factory in Detroit– and I realized that Lolita Hernandez has more than one type of story to tell me. So if you want to smile as well as be surprised, pick up Making Callaloo in Detroit, open to its first page, and let this wonderfully talented writer lead you into her spicily seasoned, often sensual, sometimes gritty, and always rewarding realms.

Lisa Lenzo is the author of Strange Love (2014), a novel-in-stories published by Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. Lenzo’s first collection of stories, Within the Lighted City (1997), was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press.”Strays,” from Strange Love, won the 2013 short story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review. Lenzo contributed an essay for RHLAOB on turning real life into fiction. 

 

Paulette Livers

Paulette Livers

First impulse answer: Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s follow-up to Gilead and Home. I stopped and made myself scour through all the other wonderful books I read this year to be sure I wasn’t reflexively going to an author I adore. But Lila gave me everything I want. Compelling voice, deep interiority that manages to remain mysterious—sometimes even to the narrator herself, which is the best kind of mystery. Robinson’s mastery of the craft never falters, something the reader only discerns when she is forced to leave the vivid and continuous dream that is first-rate fiction, and attend to life around her.

Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize 2014 and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and Chicago Writers Association’s Fiction Book of the Year. Her work appears in Southwest Review, The Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, and elsewhere, and can be heard at the audio-journal Bound Off. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Livers lives in Chicago. Livers contributed a powerful piece to RHLAOB, “How NOT to Write a Political Novel,” earlier this year. 

 

 Laura Long

Laura Long

I was enchanted by the boldness and precision of The Drum Tower, a novel by Farnoosh Moshiri about a family in Iran at the cusp of the 1979 revolution. At the center of this lyrical, psychologically astute novel are Talkhoon, a young woman confined to the Drum Tower basement, and her violent uncle, Assad. Moshiri reveals the madness of a revolution and of individuals, and a search for knowledge that includes the mythic bird Simorgh. This is the fourth novel by Moshiri, who fled Iran and lived in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India before relocating to the U.S.

Laura Long is the author of the novel-in-stories, Out of Peel Tree (West Virginia University Press/Vandalia, 2014) and two collections of poetry. She is the Geraldine Lyon Owen Professor of English at Lynchburg College in Virginia. She earned her BA in English/Creative Writing from Oberlin College, MAs in Anthropology/Folklore and English/Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.

 

Rebecca Makkai 2013

Rebecca Makkai
While I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about my favorite novels of the year, I haven’t had much chance to gush about two strange and miraculous debut story collections: The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, by Heather A. Slomski, and A Different Bed Every Time, by Jac Jemc. Slomski’s work reminds me of Etgar Keret — surreal and even fablelike — until it doesn’t. Her final story, “Before the Story Ends,” while slightly experimental in point of view, is realist and devastating, a counterbalance to everything earlier. Jemc’s experimentalism is often more verbal; I sometimes feel like she’s getting fresh with the English language in the backseat of a car. And her characters are hungry, desperate, illogical people. But this works, and the stories work. I kind of want to set these two collections up on a date. They’d have gloriously weird children.
Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House (Viking/Penguin, July 2014), is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Makkai’s short fiction was selected for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House (her story “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” is featured in the Winter 2014-15 issue), Ploughshares, and New England Review. Her first story collection, Music for Wartime, will appear in July 2015. She teaches at Lake Forest College and in Sierra Nevada College‘s MFA program, and runs StoryStudio Chicago‘s Novel-in-a-Year workshop.

 

lydia netzer

Lydia Netzer

My favorite book written by a woman and published in 2014 was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott. She writes so brilliantly about female spies in the Civil War, from the battlefield to the bedroom, I was completely caught up in the story of these four women. Learned a lot, laughed, gasped — this book was captivating.

Lydia Netzer is the author of two novels that are almost as smart, quick-witted, and quirky as she is. Shine Shine Shine, about astronauts, autism, marriage, and the struggle to be normal, was named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2012. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (2014) is about two close friends who decided to raise their son and daughter together and then separate them with the intention of having them fall in love and marry as adults. 

 

Ann_Packer_2008

Ann Packer

Angela Pneuman’s gorgeous coming-of-age novel Lay It On My Heart knocked me sideways.  Charmaine Peake is the 13-year-old daughter of a self-proclaimed prophet in a small Kentucky town. When her father suffers a breakdown, Charmaine and her mother, the hilariously and yet compassionately drawn Phoebe, have to take up residence in a trailer and navigate the intimacy forced on them by their new circumstances. (And you thought your mother had poor boundaries.) At the same time, Charmaine starts junior high, one of a handful of church kids in a large secular community. One of my favorite scenes occurs toward the end of the book, when Charmaine has an encounter with an older teenage boy who has been tormenting her on the school bus. It’s an unforgettable interlude: dirty, funny, and excruciating in the best way. By turns darkly comical and deeply moving, this intense and beautiful novel is cause for celebration and also no surprise to readers familiar with Pneuman’s stellar first book, the short story collection Home Remedies. Angela Pneuman is one of our best.

Ann Packer attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two national bestsellers, the novels Songs Without Words (2007) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002), which won a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Swim Back to Me (2011), a novella and five short stories. Her next novel, The Children’s Crusade, will be published by Scribner on April 7.

 

 steph-post

Steph Post

My favorite book written by a woman in 2014 is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Munaweera has been compared to Michael Ondaatje, but her work–lyrical, fearless and unrelenting–has set Munaweera onto a pedestal of her own. Her unflinching tale of women warriors, survivors, and refugees of the Sri Lankan civil war is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. Quite simply, Island of a Thousand Mirrors took my breath away.

Steph Post is a novelist (A Tree Born Crooked, Sept. 2014), short story writer, editor, reader, teacher and dog lover. Her essay for RHLAOB, “Writing Under Fire,” was published in November. She lives in Florida. 

 

 Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye

Euphoria, by Lily King, is a cleverly constructed novel about a love triangle between three brilliant characters, each an anthropologist in New Guinea, competing in intellectual prowess and love. The woman scientist in the mix is based on extensive research about the great Margaret Mead, who readers may recall from old textbooks. But nothing about Nell is musty or dull—in my opinion, she’s more vibrant and distinct in mind and body than any female character in recent fiction. [King’s essay for RHLAOB about her creative process, “Pencil and Paper,” was her first-ever contribution to a blog and one of the highlights of the year.]

Virginia Pye’s second novel will be published by Unbridled Books in Fall 2015. It is set in North China in 1937, twenty-five years after her first novel, River of Dust, took place there, and tells the story of an American missionary widow and her teenage son as they try to escape the escalating war with Japan and the dramatic rise of Communism. She wrote for RHLAOB about the writer’s ever-expanding skill set in “Hawking My Wares.” 

 

 robinson_roxana with book cover

Roxana Robinson

My nomination is Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her Naples trilogy. The novels begin in impoverished post-war Naples, in a community infested by the Camorra. The author calls herself Elena Ferrante, but doesn’t make public appearances, and so has created a mystery around herself. But whoever she  is, this writer is brilliant, savage and relentless. In her trilogy starting in Naples in the  1950s, she traces the deep lines of connection between crime and family, violence and children, deception and women, and shows the devastating consequences of corruption. Interestingly, because of this writer’s refusal to appear in public, rumors have sprung up about her real identity. The claim is made that she’s a man. Really? Why would you say that? Because she’s so good? Because it’s impossible to imagine a woman writing so well and so candidly about something so savage? Honestly, I can’t see any reason for these rumors except misogyny.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta (2013), Cost (2008), and Sweetwater (2003); three collections of short stories, including A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2007); and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1987). Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s Magazine, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, BookForumBest American Short StoriesTin House, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and is the current president of the Authors Guild.

 

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Leora Skolkin-Smith

My favorite book this year was Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day. Profound in both form and content, this overlooked novel deserves center stage.

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the novels Hystera (2011) and Edges (2005), which was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Paley’s own imprint at Glad Day books. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Hemingway Award by Paley. Skolkin-Smith was raised in New York and Israel and earned her BA and MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.

 

lee-upton-april-2010-closeup

Lee Upton

One of my favorite books released in 2014 is The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (NYRB Classic) by the Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001), best known as the author and illustrator of children’s books featuring charmingly blob-like creatures called Moomins.  The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first full-scale English translation of Jansson’s stories for adults, bringing together work written over the course of twenty-five years.  Often these fully original, beautiful stories are about the small changes that transform a life from the inside, changes that may be imperceptible to others and baffling to the person experiencing those changes.  Jansson tends to write about artists—sculptors, cartoonists, illustrators—who reveal an obsessive dedication to precision, a dedication much like, apparently, the author’s own.  Many of her characters love silence and solitude.  Sometimes they encounter animals, and those encounters, closely observed without sentimentality, elicit admiration for the animals’ feral qualities. (Her animals tend to bite.)  In “The Monkey,” a pet monkey acts out a sculptor’s own urges.  When the monkey, off her leash, scales a tree in winter, the sculptor’s observations make for a keen portrait of artistic ambition:  “You poor little bastard.  You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Jansson frequently asks questions.  Here’s a sampling, plucked from the slowly whirling weather systems of several stories:  “What is it that’s happened to me?” “What shall we drink to?”  “What are you angry about?”  “What is it that’s wrong?” “What do you want?” “What’s life about?”  The funny thing about these limpid, bracing, fierce, and yet welcoming stories: they create the sensation of our being enclosed and alone in a quiet place. Distractions melt away and we may begin, like Jansson, to think about fundamental things.

Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. Her sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottlesrecipient of the Open Book Award, is forthcoming this year from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  A professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College, she is the author of thirteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island, and a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy.  Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.

 

Laura-van-den-Berg

Laura van den Berg

[If I had to pick] a favorite, I’d say All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a brilliant examination of death and sisterhood and survival.

Laura van den Berg earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG in February 2015. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 

 

 

Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White

My favorite 2014 book by a woman was Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Because her previous novels, Gilead and Home, both claim a spot on my Favorites of All Time list, I anticipated this new novel with barely-contained glee. So, it’s no surprise that I loved it. Perhaps Lila is more narrow in scope than the others and in fact, I spent the first section wondering if readers who were new to the series would love it as much as I was. The main character, Lila, is the same who appears in those previous novels and this new one focuses on her version of the story we already know. But then I stopped wondering, and became captivated by Robinson’s evocative writing and Lila’s world. Robinson is a master of the subtle, a soft-focus spotlight on the frailties and wonders of human feeling, and a creator of one of the most beloved characters I’ve ever known, John Ames. The unlikely love story between this elderly minister and the guarded Lila will squeeze your heart into a pulpy mess. In a good way.

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published in June 2014 by Authonomy, an imprint of HarperCollins. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she earned an MA from DePaul University. White wrote an essay for RHLAOB about the novel that changed her life, Lolita, last May. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, four children, and two badly trained dogs.

 

 Joan_Wickersham

Joan Wickersham

I’ve admired the novels of Deirdre Madden for years. Her latest, Time Present and Time Past, is proof that a novel of ideas doesn’t need to be ponderous — it’s a deft, brilliantly economical meditation on memory and the limits of knowledge, and it is also a deeply sympathetic, charming, subtly shaded family portrait.

Joan Wickersham is the author of the memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Mariner, 2009) and the short story collection The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story (Knopf, 2012). Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe. Wickersham has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.