Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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The Writing Life: Jane Delury talks and laughs with Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt and Elissa Schappell

Three of the most interesting and entertaining writers on the contemporary fiction scene are Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt, and Elissa Schappell. Each has a distinctive voice and style, but their fiction probes individual character and cultural shifts with an accuracy and emotional intensity that makes their books particularly satisfying reads. They are smart, funny, and intellectually restless people, and that shows in their work. In this interview for Read Her Like an Open Book, Jane Delury explores the serio-comic writing life with the three East Coast authors. After you read this, you’ll want all of them to be your next-door neighbors. But for now, you’ll have to enjoy their books.


Since you began writing, what has changed from book to book? Are you consciously trying to do something new with each project?

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Jessica Anya Blau:  I’ve actually tried to do the same thing over again, but when I do that, I feel like a complete fraud and a failure . . .  an asshole who has nothing new to say. So, each book I’ve written has been new to me. In that way, each one was difficult in novel ways and with a whole new depth. There’s a general terror in writing—the fear of failure, fear that I’m dumb, fear that I’m not up to the task I’ve set out for myself—which only seems to grow with each project. In general, I write despite my feelings.

Caroline Leavitt 2016Caroline Leavitt:  I’ve always tried to do something new, whether it’s setting things in different time periods, or changing point of view, but I seem to do it in twos. My first two novels were in first person, my last two were in the 50s, and then the 70s in third person. Of course, this adds to the terror. Like Jessica, I am on the verge of nervous collapse ALL THE TIME. But I have to share my favorite John Irving quote. If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, or losing control of the whole thing, then you’re not trying hard enough. I loved that quote so much, I tracked Irving down and wrote him a letter about how much better his quote made me feel. To my shock, he wrote me back a two-page handwritten letter talking about all sorts of things, and ended with, “But I didn’t say that. Though it sounds like I COULD have.” So, I’ve learned that doing new things, getting more ambitious and complex, equals nausea, terror, shock.

JAB: A two-page letter from John Irving?! That’s amazing. I wrote Alice Munro once and got back a post-card that said, “Jessica, keep writing.”

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Elissa Schappell: Clearly I need to start writing some fan mail. God knows I admire so many writers. Anyone got a Ouija board? I’d love to get in touch with Dawn Powell and Jane Bowles, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys…

Every time I start a new project, I think, I want to do something different. With Use Me, the idea that you could write a novel in stories was all new to me.

With my second book, part of a two book contract—a promised novel—I had decided I was going to write a “big” Tom Wolfe-style novel—an IMPORTANT book—socially relevant, with a capital T, Topic. My subject was race—the relationship between white upper middle class liberal mothers and their black and Filipino nannies—it was about privilege and drug addiction, plastic surgery, passionate female friendship, sex… all the hits.  I spent almost two and a half years working on that book—working against all my better instincts, slogging through it like I was writing a book report—and it was shit.

At the same time I was writing stories so I wouldn’t stab myself, which saved me. Because when I wasn’t trying to be a good girl and finish my homework (which is what that novel felt like) when I let myself write what I couldn’t say out loud, or say without screaming—when I let myself be angry and bold, when I chucked the map and just felt my way in, the writing wasn’t terrible and every other word wasn’t a lie.

Has the process gotten easier, or harder? Did you know what you were getting into when you chose to be a writer?

CL:  It’s always impossible. I have what I call writer’s amnesia. I forget how hard I cried and whined and panicked about the book prior to the one I am writing at the time. I think somehow that being so panicked is something new, and then all my writer friends sigh and laugh, and my husband says, “You were just like this last book. And that’s how I know your writing is going well.”

JAB: Yes, I guess it’s like having a baby. You forget until you remember. And you don’t remember until you’re there, vomiting and pissing on the table, screaming for someone to knock you out and make it end.

ES:  That’s exactly my process! Have you tried laying a rubber sheet out on your desk? It really helps quite a lot.

JAB: I’m so going to try that!

ES: As to easier or harder, I think this book I’m working on now is by far the hardest book I’ve ever written, and I’m in a flat out panic. It’s true, I tell my friends and family, I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s not working—I’m lost. And its exactly what Jessica is talking about. They all nod, and say,Yep this is exactly what you said last time.

Although no one has suggested this means the work is going well. It’s more, Buckle up it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I didn’t think about what I was getting into—I never thought about a career as a writer. I thought I was going to be a painter, or an actress or a veterinarian, or a DJ (yes, really—I was that far gone) writing was just what I did.  I have no other wage earning skills, and certainly not at this age. I could tell you all about my checkered employment history but it would just make you sad.  Three words: Balloon delivery girl.

However surprised I might be that I became a writer—no one else, not my parents, or my friends from childhood or college seemed surprised. I was so disappointed at my 20th high school reunion, here I thought I was finally going to out myself as a writer—show them my true face, and instead they nodded at me…. “Oh, yeah”, smug little fortune tellers, “We all saw that coming. You were always a writer. Except for one woman who said, “I thought you’d be a toll booth operator.”

JAB: I ran into a high school friend once and when she asked what I was doing, I said I was writing. she said something like, “Oh that’s cool you’re riding. Do you own your own horse?” I said, ‘No, I don’t own my own horse.” And that was that. My father said to me (and this is a near-exact quote): “You were a beach bunny, I thought you’d grow up to be a wife.”

CL: No one thought I was going to be a writer except for me. My mother wanted me to be married and have a man take care of me (writing could be my little hobby) and my dad wanted me to be married and to be JEWISH-married.)  I had a high school teacher who sniffed at me, “Sorry, you don’t write that well.” A Brandeis writing professor told me that I would never make it, that he could see me as a Montessori nursery school teacher because I was such a “sweet little girl.”

I had no idea what I was getting into when I sold my first novel. I was so scared, I threw up a lot. Then, when the book took off, I thought, oh great, this is my career, every two years I’ll write a book and it will do as fabulously as this one did. HA. HA. My second book didn’t do as well and my publisher folded (not because of me, though!). The next publisher folded just as my novel came out. Then, I got a three-book deal with a BIG publisher who did absolutely nothing for me and refused to take my calls. I got another three-book deal with a different big publisher, and guess what I’m going to say? By then, I had a great new agent (I was always terrified of my first agent and had to pretend to smoke—I have never smoked in my life—to make myself feel brave). Even with my new agent, my ninth novel was rejected by the big publisher as not being special enough. Algonquin bought it and made that ninth book a bestseller the first month it was out. The editor who rejected it as “not special” sent me an email the day it made the NYT bestseller list, only she meant the note to be for her gynecologist, and it was really, really graphic! I let it go, but she emailed it again, so I had to tell her that I was not her doctor. She said, “Fine, how are things?” I told her, and she never wrote back.

How do you feel about the pressure put on authors to promote themselves now? When you release a new book and go on tour, what gratifies and bugs you the most?

CL: It’s tremendous pressure. Most writers I know are socially awkward, scared, nervous, and the ones who aren’t drink or drug themselves to be outgoing. What I love about being a writer is being able to write, to be in my house with Jeff, my husband, who also works at home. I actually love social media because I don’t have to leave my house to do it! I can go on twitter and Facebook and feel that I have been given a shot of human interaction and then go back to my day. And I’ve made and met real friends there—people I never would have met if I just awkwardly approached them! I haven’t figured out how to do Instagram, yet.

JAB: Yeah, you’re actually great at Facebook. You’re real. Authentic. It’s like everyone’s your best bud—the kind of bud you talk to on the phone while you’re emptying the dishwasher. I like seeing your stuff. And Elissa’s great on Facebook, too. Elissa’s political and says all the things I would say if I weren’t afraid and too shy to say them. I feel a little embarrassed promoting myself but I accept it as part of the package—I want my books to be out the world so I’ll do whatever needs to be done. The very kind marketing woman at HarperCollins just set up an author page with me—the whole thing made me nervous—I was worried no one would tap that like box. I also recently started Instagram but was told by several people I was “terrible” at it because I kept posting pictures of my diapered, fishy-smelling, one-eyed dog. One of my daughters has my Instagram password now and she randomly goes in there and deletes the photos she thinks would turn people off. She also randomly posts pictures, too.

ES:  I understand that social media makes some people queasy.  I also think that when a writer says, I don’t understand it, or, It’s not my thing that they sound a bit like an old codger complaining about newfangled technology, What do they call it, TV? It’s nothing more than radio with pictures. Just a fad!

My publisher told me, or let’s be real, threatened me, “You have a choice you can make a Facebook page, or we will set up a Fan Page for you.” That did it. I didn’t like it, but I did it. In the beginning I didn’t say much but posted videos of bands I loved and whatever nice press I got. It felt artificial to me, but obviously I got over that. Now I really dig it.

It’s good to have a place to hype the things you love and hyperventilate over the things that make you insane.

I agree with Jessica. Caroline is great at Facebook. She’s a natural, very open and intimate—you feel like you know her and you like her. And Jessica’s page is sly and beautifully curated. In both cases, you can see how the work grows out of each author’s unique sensibility.

I am much more political on my page then I am in my fiction. What is more tedious for a reader then to turn to a book of fiction and find instead a diatribe about the venal, blood-and-money-drunk radicalized Republican party’s depraved indifference to the lives of ordinary human beings, particularly people of color, women and the poor?

What about touring?

JAB: I love touring. I love meeting people at readings. I love staying in hotels. I love watching people in airports. I’m so grateful for my publisher, so happy that they’ll send me on a tour.

CL: I don’t like the plane wait, the plane ride, and the plane descent. I do love having a hotel room and getting room service (though on my last tour, I was obsessed with bed bugs, and I kept having to look at every bed until I simply was too tired to bother about that.) I love speaking to large crowds (lunches! Dinners! Organizations!) because it feels exhilarating and I love to talk. I always want to be paired with another writer at bookstores because I worry less that no one will show up, except two people who heard there was going to be cake.

JAB: I showed up at a reading once where there was one guy. Front row. Center. Holding the book.

ES:  I know that guy! The guy in the tinfoil hat!  I am always so grateful for his presence. Sometimes it’s just him, the bookstore owner, and whomever they could rustle up in the bar next door. If it’s cold maybe we get a couple of guys who were just standing around a trash can warming their hands. Books can throw some serious heat.

I had a panic attack on my first tour. I ordered room service—roast chicken and a bottle of Evian—and the bill was something like $50. I flipped. I called my husband, literally hyperventilating, and gasped, “I ordered a $50 chicken… I am in so much trouble…”  I thought I should return it, or at least the ten-dollar bottle of water, it seemed reckless and like I might be taking advantage of the company’s largesse. He talked me out of it. Can you imagine?

CL:  I love speaking to readers. I worship indie bookstores and book clubs. The only thing that bugs me is if people get my name totally wrong (okay, this happened only once, but I was introduced as Mrs. Harriet Lev. COME ON!)

JAB: Is there a writer named Harriet Lev?

ES: I agree with what Caroline said. Indie bookstores are the lifeblood of book culture. The people who work in those stores—no, who work in those temples—the folks who hand sell books, they may be our last best hope of saving the culture from the nincompoopery of the mass industrial entertainment complex.

JAB: Agreed. Hooray for indie bookstores! Down with nincompoopery!


Jane Delury’s stories have appeared in publications including Narrative, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She’s an associate professor of writing and literature at the University of Baltimore.

Jessica Anya Blau’s latest novel, The Trouble with Lexie, is out June 28th, 2016.  Her previous books are The Wonder Bread Summer, Drinking Closer to Home, and the national bestseller The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. Recently, Jessica ghost-wrote a memoir that is coming out with HarperColllins in the fall of 2016. Jessica grew up in Southern California and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. You can learn more about Jessica’s new book and all things JAB at www.jessicaanyablau.com.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author (she wants to tattoo that on her forehead because she still fears it was a mistake) of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You–and 8 other novels. Her new novel Cruel Beautiful World will be out October 4th and she begs everyone to please buy it, read it, and spread the word—and if you want to be her best friend, she also insists that everyone buy and read the work of Jessica Anya Blau, Elissa Schappell and Jane Delury. More fun facts at www.carolineleavitt.com

Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is the former Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

 

Summer Fiction Preview: A Dozen Books Worth Your Valuable Time

Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer. And that means not only can you now wear white pants, but you’ve finally got some time to do all that reading you’ve been looking forward to. And publishers always “cooperate” by releasing a passel of must-read novels and story collections between May and August. Because there are so many books worth sharing, I’ve split this preview into two parts. Part 1 covers May 31 to June 28. Look for Part 2, covering July 5 to September 13, soon!


May 31

Modern Lovers

Emma Straub — Modern Lovers (Riverhead)

In “The River,” Bruce Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Straub catches up with the former members of a band as they build their family lives in Brooklyn, and suggests that there might be a third answer to that question: that some youthful enthusiasms remain beating quietly beneath the surface, to be revived later, when they’re truly needed.

June

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore — June (Crown)

MBW has mastered the smartly written melodrama, perfect for summer reading. In June, a young woman named Cassie is bereft following the death of her grandmother, the June of the title, who had raised her. But then Cassie learns that she is the heir to the fortune of aging Hollywood star Jack Montgomery. How can that be? Did he know June? When the star’s daughters dispute the will and show up in Cassie’s small Ohio town, they all learn the sinister truth about Jack and June, and face the consequences of a past they could never have imagined.


June 7

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing (Knopf)

Some books have pre-publication buzz and some books have Big Buzz. Homegoing is the latter, one of the Big Books of Summer, generated in part by the auction that led to a seven-figure advance for Gyasi’s debut novel. The novel begins with two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, one of whom is married to a British colonizer, the other sold into slavery. Their wildly divergent paths create the real attraction of Homegoing: the novel’s structure, which follows several descendants of the sisters up through the 21st century, exploring the rippling effects of family, history, slavery, and racism. It’s an ambitious and auspicious debut from an author we’ll no doubt be hearing a great deal from.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Anna Noyes — Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press)

Noyes’s collection offers a set of interconnected stories about women of all stripes, struggling to make their lives work in the midst of economic, family, and social challenges in Maine and elsewhere in New England. The characters move in and out of each other’s stories, the way we do in the real world, with effects both salutary and harmful.

Marrow Island

Alexis M. Smith — Marrow Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Smith blew me away with her slim but potent debut novel, Glaciers, in 2013. This time she expands her scope beyond the life of one quiet young woman in Portland. Lucie Bowen grew up on Marrow Island in the Puget Sound, until she and her mother were forced to flee to the mainland following an earthquake and oil refinery explosion that killed her father. Now, 20 years later, her best friend from her island youth writes to tell her that the island is inhabitable and is being repopulated by what she calls the “Colony.” When Lucie returns to visit, she soon develops serious misgivings about the colony and its leader, a former nun with an ambitious plan. As with Glaciers, Smith’s writing sparkles even in this dark story.


June 14

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

Ramona Ausubel — Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead)

Ausubel made a big impression with her distinctive vision in her debut novel about the Holocaust,  No One is Here Except All of Us, and her sophomore collection of surreal stories, A Guide to Being Born (think Karen Russell). She returns with the story of a privileged family in the mid-1970s who are confronted with a massive financial setback. The parents go their separate ways and their three children hunker down and try to cope with their changed and parentless world.

The Girls

Emma Cline — The Girls (Random House)

Cline’s first novel is also generating a lot of talk. A shy 14-year-old girl becomes friends with an older, charismatic girl and her mysterious friends. They soon suck her into the secret world of a cult living in the nearby hills. The parallels to Charles Manson’s “family” are obvious in this dark coming of age tale set in the Northern California in the late 1960s.

Grace

Natashia Deon — Grace (Counterpoint)

Deon’s debuts is a complex portrait of slavery pre- and post-Emancipation Proclamation. Fifteen-year-old Naomi runs away from her Alabama plantation and ends up in a Georgia brothel, where she falls in love with a white man. The bulk of the story follows their child, Josey, who is separated from her mother and raised by a freed slave in the years following the Civil War; she negotiates a life of violence as a mixed-race slave, then as part of a group of freed women. Rebecca Solnit says, “People will compare this book to Twelve Years a SlaveCold Mountain, and Beloved, and those are fair comparisons for the kind of time and place here, and the evocation of the south 150 years ago. But reading it, I thought of murder ballads, those songs of melancholy and injustice.” Grace is a moving story about the bonds of mother and daughter in the most difficult of circumstances.

Barkskins

Annie Proulx — Barkskins (Scribner)

In a novel that seems like to occupy a parallel universe to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, two young woodcutters (“barkskins”) land in 17th century New France hoping to create lives in the New World. Like the half-sisters in Gyasi’s book, their personalities, skills, and luck are diametrically opposed, with dramatically different results. Proulx depicts the paths of their family trees for the following 300 years with her inimitable style and insight.


June 21

The Mandibles

Lionel Shriver — The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Harper)

Shriver is widely admired for her compelling family dramas We Need to Talk About Kevin and Big Brother. Now she moves into speculative, dystopian fiction, a la Margaret Atwood, to probe the nature of family life when a global currency collapse wipes out the fortune they expected from their 97-year-old patriarch.

Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler — Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Tyler’s modernized take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is the latest in a series of similar books published by Hogarth. Of course, modernizations of Shrew have been with us a long time, such as the musical Kiss Me Kate and the teen-oriented movie 10 Things I Hate About You. So one would think there was nothing left to do with this story of a difficult young woman who refuses to marry, complicating the marriage plans of her younger sister. Here, 29-year-old Kate Battista teaches pre-school and keeps house for her eccentric scientist father and takes care of Bunny, her younger sister. The plot thickens when Dr. Battista needs to find a way to keep his Russian research assistant in the country and looks to Kate for help.


June 28

The Trouble with Lexie

Jessica Anya Blau — The Trouble with Lexie (Harper Perennial)

The irrepressible Blau is back with another breezy yet biting tale of a young woman in various forms of trouble (as in her last book, the darkly comic The Wonder Bread Summer). Lexie James has overcome a troubled upbringing, earning a master’s degree, nabbing a plum job at a prestigious New England prep school, and becoming engaged to a terrific guy. As her wedding date nears, she is plagued by self-doubt. Does she really deserve a life like this? An alumnus of Ruxton Academy becomes the catalyst for Lexie’s journey of self-discovery. In The Trouble with Lexie, Blau offers up an entertaining combination of humorous and poignant moments in a fast-paced, fun read.

Jessica Anya Blau: My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s

Jessica Anya Blau 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

When most people think of women of the 1950s they think of poodle skirts, ponytails, and mothers wearing aprons with their hair stiffly molded into the shape of fancy dinner rolls. When I think of women of the 1950s, I think of some of my favorite writers. Here’s a list of my top four. Feel free to tweet this list and add all the women you noticed I missed.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith. Otto Penzier said of Highsmith, “She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.” Everything I’ve read about her makes me believe that to be true. However, she wrote some damn fine books that have given me weeks of great pleasure. Most people are familiar with Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, from the Hitchcock movie. I, too, love the movie. But the book is just as fabulous.  Read it, and then read The Price of Salt, my next favorite Highsmith book. Once you’ve finished those, it’s time to get to the Ripley series, including the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Francoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan. A film was made about Sagan’s life (it’s French, and I love French films but haven’t seen it yet). Her life was certainly cinematic—she had two husbands, many lovers, and a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy Magazine editor Annick Geille. Oh, and there was also the gambling in Monaco, the coma after the car accident, and the drugs and alcohol.  Her first novel (written before the drugs and alcohol, when she was only 18), Bonjour Tristesse, is a lovely, fun, quick read that will make you wish you could run to the French Riviera, rent a house, and write a character as wonderfully spirited as Sagan’s Cécile.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of gambling in Monaco or just being downright mean, like the two writers above, Gwendolyn Brooks spent her life writing.  By age 16 she had published 75 poems.  (I, on the other hand, was wearing a black crochet bikini and making out with boys on the beach at 16, flighty fool that I was!) I love reading Brooks’ work, and I love reading it aloud. Brooks’ poems are so beautifully rhythmic, you can do hand claps or jump rope to them. Start with the collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls. I promise, you’ll be a Brooks devotee after a single stanza.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor. No list of great writers—male, female, of any decade—is complete without Flannery O’Connor. There are many great books about her, her life in rural Georgia, her love of peacocks and peahens, her Catholicism and her premature death. They’re all fascinating; go read them. But first, read anything and everything she’s written. Start with the short stories if you haven’t read them already. Begin with the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. These stories contain characters that will stick with you like your extended family—people you’ll know and think about for the rest of your life.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of three novels. The Wonder Bread Summer, her third novel, won various “beach read” contests from NPR, CNN and Oprah.com’s book club. Jessica is the author of the 2008 bestselling novel The Summer of the Naked Swim Parties, which was named a Top Summer Read by “The Today Show,” The New York Post, and New York Magazine. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars Masters program, Jessica has published more than two dozen short stories. Her second novel, Drinking Closer to Home, came out in 2011. Her honors include a “Family Matters,” Glimmer Train Finalist in 2008, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship in August of 2003, the Santa Barbara Independent Fiction Contest Winner in July 1998, and the Eclectica Featured Writer in August 1997. Jessica was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. She earned a BA in French from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.

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.

A Conversation with Dylan Landis: Rainey Royal “comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls”

Dylan_Landis

Interview by Ellie Gaines

Special Contributor to Read Her Like an Open Book 

 

During the last semester of my senior year in high school, I did an internship with the novelist Jessica Anya Blau. I was beyond excited when I saw that on the long to-do list that Jessica made for me was a request that I read two galleys (Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal and Katie Crouch’s Abroad) and interview the authors. Reading a book that wasn’t out yet seemed a lot more exciting than organizing bookshelves (that was also on the list!), and to be honest, it made me feel pretty special. And getting the opportunity to interview these writers truly thrilled me.

From the opening pages of Rainey Royal I fell in love with Landis’s prose. When I finished the book, I went to Jessica’s bookshelves and borrowed Landis’s debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Over the next two days, I devoured the stories every chance I got. Here’s the conversation I had with Dylan Landis.

 

In your first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, we see the characters Rainey and Leah. What made you decide to continue on with these characters in Rainey Royal, and make a whole book dedicated to Rainey? Where did you get the original idea for this character?

               Rainey was one of the most compelling characters in Normal People Don’t Live Like This—a school bully, a radiantly sexual girl with serious troubles at home. But after the first two stories she vanished, because I was focusing on Leah, who had troubles of her own, and also because this was my first book of fiction and I didn’t know much about structure. My mentor and teacher, the novelist Jim Krusoe, suggested I add another Rainey story, but I was impatient to have a book out and thought my manuscript was finished. That unwritten story left a little hole in the book that readers often pointed out—”What happened to Rainey?”

And that became the opening for the new book, Rainey Royal. The fact is that I missed her and she never stopped talking to me. She comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls. I grew up not just wanting to hide from these girls; I wanted simultaneously to be them. They seemed so beautiful and fearless and free; they seemed to have some knowledge about the world and its mysteries, which I took to mean sex. I wanted to stand near them, just out of their sight. I wanted to absorb something magical from them. Later on I became a bit wild like them, but I never became the real thing. I write about them instead.

Normal People Don’t Live Like This is composed of connected short stories while Rainey Royal is more novelistic in that each story centers around Rainey, and we move forward in time. Why did you choose to do it one way or another?

All I knew, moving from story to story in Normal People, was that Leah would get older. She grows from twelve to twenty-two. I circled her life, pausing to write about a conflict here, a problem there. That circling and pausing is what makes it more of a linked story collection, though because she matures it’s possible to see it as a novel-in-stories.

Writing a novel, or something closer to a novel, felt like a natural next step, a more fluid way to tell a story that took place over fourteen years.. I tried to stay conscious of a narrative arc, aware of specific problems that had to persist and either blow up or resolve as the book progressed. The novelist Benjamin Percy calls these problems “flaming chainsaws.” They have to keep recurring, and they have to move forward each time. So a chapter may stand on its own and may be published as a short story—I was thrilled when the story “Trust” won an O. Henry Award—but if the flaming chainsaws are juggled well through the entire book, you should end up with something that has the weight and the arc of a novel.

In Normal People Don’t Live Like This we see a few short stories that revolve around Leah and her mom. The fact that Leah’s mom is anorexic adds an interesting tension to Leah’s relationship with her mom. Why did you decide to have Leah’s mom be anorexic? Did you want to relate her lack of food to the lack of connection she has with her daughter? A starvation in two senses?

That link between anorexia and emotional starvation came straight from the basement, the writer’s subconscious. So it wasn’t a decision but rather a discovery that Helen was anorexic—though that word wasn’t so much in use in the 1970s. We just called it dieting. You put your finger on it exactly, though: a starvation in two senses. I didn’t think about it while I wrote, but in revision I saw the starvation as being Helen’s lack of connection, not just to Leah, whom she genuinely loves, but to her own self. It always intrigued me that when Helen first gets sensually involved with a man, she takes a bite of food from a spoon he holds.

Rainey Royal begins with Rainey making connections between Saint Catherine of Bologna and herself. When you started writing did you know that Saint Catherine would be woven throughout the book? Or did you write about Rainey and then discover their similarities? Why did you believe it was important for Rainey to relate to such an unusual character like a saint from the times of Columbus and Queen Isabella?

I had a moment of inspiration, while making notes for the first story, that Rainey—who loves libraries—would look up the patron saint for artists. And of course she’d make the connection personal, and call her Cath. To Rainey, Cath is not some ancient, inaccessible religious figure; she is a chick just like herself, a girl who can draw like crazy, and whose mother is out of the picture, and who must have problems with grown men, because don’t all teenage girls have problems with men? If you’re Rainey, isn’t that part of the territory? I knew right away, reading Saint Catherine of Bologna’s bio, that she would make a great sister-protector for Rainey, who desperately needs one.

In Rainey Royal we follow Rainey from the age of fourteen until she is in her mid-twenties. Is there something important about those years particularly in a girl’s life? Is there something important about a girl’s relationship with her father in those years?

Those are the coming-of-age years; they’re packed with emotional growth and pain. My memories of those years are the most vivid I have, more vivid than yesterday’s. So it’s good, rich earth to turn over and pick through when I’m looking for psychological material. And I think by the time a girl is fourteen or fifteen her father has taught her, by example or by neglect, how she should be with men, and how they should be with her. If that’s a lesson she has to unlearn, as Rainey does, she’s going to have a struggle on her hands.

Tina is Rainey’s best friend and is very protective of her. She also does the one thing that scares Rainey the most, when she develops a relationship with Howard. Can you explain the love/hate dynamic between the two girls? Do you think all female friendships are double sided?

Adult female friendships can be utterly devoted in the most straightforward way, but in adolescence I remember them as passionate and sometimes two-hearted. There’s a moment where Tina thinks about how she and Rainey are so close, “she doesn’t get why God made them both girls,” and a contrasting moment where Rainey thinks about how, with Tina, she “always has to mention the one thing that hurts; it’s like nudging a loose tooth.” Those are the two hearts, the urge to push away and the urge to fuse. It’s not always that complicated, but as a writer I’d rather explore both aspects of female friendship.

Both of your books are centered around the 1970s.  Why did you choose this time? Do you think your stories would be different if you set them in modern day times?

               The era chose me. I was writing about teenagers, and that was the time of my adolescence, the decade when emotional memory, and memory of visual and auditory detail, were strongest. If the stories were set now I’d be consulting the internet and my friends’ teenage children for details and veracity, and it’s possible things might not feel as true.

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

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

I posed three questions to them: 

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

2. What are you currently reading?

3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

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

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

summer book preview clarke winspear morris lusbader mccollough o

Laura McBride

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

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

Kahakauwila Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila

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

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

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

[My review of This is Paradise is here.]

laline-paull-the-bees

Laline Paull

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

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

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

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

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

[My review of The Bees is here.]

2013-07-10-JessicaBlau  Wonder Bread Summer

Jessica Anya Blau

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

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

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

qualities-of-wood-pb-   Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White 

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

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

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

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

Vanessa Blakeslee Train Shots

Vanessa Blakeslee

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

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

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

[My review of Train Shots is here.]

Sand Queen   Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

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

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

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

[My review of Sand Queen is here.]

Ronlyn Domingue   the-chronicle-of-secret-riven

Ronlyn Domingue

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

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

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

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

An Unexpected Guest   Anne Korkeakivi

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

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

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

[My review of An Unexpected Guest is here.]