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

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


Pachinko

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Grand Central Books 2017, 481 pages

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

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

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


The Pathless Sky

The Pathless Sky

By Chaitali Sen

Europa Editions 2015, 312 pages

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

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

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


Hour-of-Daydreams

The Hour of Daydreams

By Renee Macalino Rutledge

Forest Avenue Press 2017, 235 pages

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

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


Heat and Light

Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh

Ecco 2016, 435 pages

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

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

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


the-given-world-paperback

The Given World 

By Marian Palaia

Simon & Schuster 2015, 320 pages

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

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

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

American Academy of Arts and Letters honors 19 writers, including Haigh, Spiotta, Sinclair

   

Jennifer Haigh                                  Safiya Sinclair               Dana Spiotta 

 

The American Academy of Arts and Letters announced today the names of 19 writers who will receive the 2017 awards in literature, which will be presented in New York City at the Academy’s annual Ceremonial in May.  The literature prizes, totaling $265,000, honor both established and emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.  The Academy’s 250 members propose candidates, and a rotating committee of writers selects winners.  This year’s award committee members were John Guare (chairman), Thomas McGuane, Anne Tyler, Rosanna Warren, and Joy Williams.

Recipients include novelists Jennifer Haigh (Heat and Light, Baker Towers, News from Heaven) and Dana Spiotta (Innocents and Others, Stone Arabia) and poets Kathleen Graber (The Eternal City, Correspondence) and Safiya Sinclair (Cannibal).

Haigh and Graber received Arts and Letters Awards in Literature, which honor “exceptional accomplishment in any genre” and come with a $10,000 prize.

Spiotta received the John Updike Award ($20,000), which is “given biennially to a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Fiction, which will be announced on April 21.

Sinclair was chosen for the Addison M. Metcalf Award ($10,000), which is “given to a young writer of fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry.” The Jamaican-born poet, currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, is a 2016 Whiting Award winner, and her debut collection, Cannibal, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.

Work by the winners will be featured in the 2017 Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Honors and Awards, which will be on view in the Academy’s galleries from May 18 to June 11.

NEWS FROM HEAVEN wins Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction

news from heaven.jpg.   Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh has won the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction for her 2013 short story collection, News from Heaven (Harper). The award was announced at the Massachusetts Library Association’s annual conference earlier this week.

The ten stories in News from Heaven follow up on the characters readers first met in Haigh’s acclaimed novel, Baker Towers, about the residents of the Pennsylvania mining town of Bakerton.

Having grown up in such a town, Haigh knows these people and the lives they lead. As a result, she writes about their difficult economic and emotional lives with compassion and lyricism. With the mining business in dramatic decline, the Bakerton locals are struggling to find their way forward through a range of personal and social challenges.

News from Heaven examines a town and a culture, and reveals the universal experiences of working people coping with a world in which change forces them to change more than just their jobs. Haigh’s collection is not a flashy post-postmodern work that flirts with science fiction, fantasy, and nihilism; it’s built on character-based scenarios that hit home with Haigh’s clear-eyed insights and flawless prose.

News from Heaven also won the PEN/New England fiction award on March 16. Clearly, those who know Jennifer Haigh’s writing best know the quality of her work. Don’t let her fly under your reading radar any longer. You can’t go wrong with Baker Towers, Faith, or News from Heaven.