Five Worthwhile Books You May Have Missed (Part 1 in a series)

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


The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories

By Christine Sneed

Bloomsbury, 2016

Christine Sneed is an astute observer of contemporary life, as she demonstrated in her debut collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and her 2015 novel, Paris, He Said, which dissected a complicated May-December relationship. In her latest collection, she probes the contrast between expectation and reality, and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about who we are, what we want, and the choices we make. The characters in these stories are flawed but recognizably human and they earn our compassion. And while Sneed exposes the truth about them, she clearly feels empathy for their all-too-familiar struggles. Small but irrevocable actions occur and lives are changed.

The opening “Beach Vacation” captures a mother-son relationship in a moment of transition, as the mother realizes her high school senior son is no longer the boy she adored but instead has become a young man she doesn’t recognize. Every decision involves a battle of wills. He keeps secrets from her. He treats her with indifference or disdain.

When she discovers him by the hotel pool, talking to a bikini-clad older woman, it hits her. “When had it happened? she wondered. When had he become a boy who felt that his mother did nothing but limit him, that she lived only to hold him back, to keep him from experiencing the things adults claimed as their inalienable right? He wanted sex, possibly love, and he was determined to have them, whether she wanted him to or not.”

Sneed takes a metaphysical and drily humorous tack in “Roger Weber Would Like to Stay,” in which vaguely dissatisfied 39-year-old Merilee is visited regularly by a debonair ghost — a former concert pianist — who offers observations on her thoughts and desires, as well as critiques of her pleasant but dull year-long relationship with a divorced accountant. There is a hint of Shirley Jackson-style darkness as Merilee attempts to figure out what is real and what is not, and more importantly, whether she is sane.

What really stands out in this collection is the range of Sneed’s content and style. “The All-New, True CV” shows off her skills in biting social commentary and satire. “The Prettiest Girls” follows a location scout to Mexico, where he encounters an aspiring actress who views him as a ticket to stardom. “Clear Conscience” immerses readers in a family drama centered on a particularly thorny ethical dilemma. The title story revisits the protagonist from Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts, as he labors under the weight of his actor father’s legend and persona.

Sneed’s stories are serious and shaded, as if sketched with charcoal, but they move quickly, highlighted by her realistic dialogue and frequent insights into the human heart.


The Golden Age

By Joan London

Europa Editions, 2016

Joan London is a highly regarded author in her home of Australia. She deserves to be better known everywhere else. She has a gift for depicting both character and place, and her prose style is uncluttered yet elegant. In her latest novel, The Golden Age, she examines the polio epidemic that began in 1949 and continued for a decade.

Twelve-year-old Frank Gold, a recent immigrant to Perth from Hungary, is sent to the children’s hospital of the title to recover, and there he befriends another patient, Elsa Briggs. They keep up each other’s spirits through the vicissitudes of the dread disease and its various treatments, including the iron lung. The Golden Age is also the story of their parents, who cope with their children’s illness and life in Australia in varying ways. Frank’s mother was a famous pianist in Budapest and remains in denial that their life is in uncultured Western Australia now. His father, Meyer, is a hard-working delivery man who is grateful for the second chance Australia has given him and his family, and he intends to adapt and thrive, whatever the cost. Elsa’s mother, a perfectionist, struggles to accept that Elsa will not be the daughter she wants. Her attentions shift to Elsa’s siblings, making Frank’s friendship ever more valuable. The director of The Golden Age, Sister Penny, serves as a bridge between parents and their sick children, and her relationship with one parent becomes particularly important. Though dedicated to her charges, she has her own vulnerabilities.

This is an absorbing and deeply compassionate novel by an author who deserves a much wider audience. When you read it, you will see why it won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, The Patrick White Literary Award, The Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, and The New South Wales Premier’s People’s Choice Award.


Bertrand Court

By Michelle Brafman

Prospect Park Books, 2016

Just coincidentally, Bertrand Court is another book with a distinctly Jewish sensibility. Brafman’s novel-in-stories immerses us in the lives of the suburban Washington, D.C. street’s residents and their relatives and business partners. She combines old-fashioned character-based storytelling with a raft of compelling contemporary issues that move the plots along crisply.

At the center of the book are the intermarried Solonsky and Weiss families, whose lives are a tangled host of vines climbing up the family tree. We start in the early-to-mid 1990s, where we meet the three Solonsky siblings: Hannah, who is pregnant again after struggling with miscarriages in her effort to conceive a third child (“Baby #5” narrates the opening story) and whose husband, Danny Weiss, has his hands full; Eric, whose intermarriage to Maggie presents complications when their first child is born; and Amy, the family free spirit who might be ready to settle down. The Solonsky grandmothers, Goldie and Sylvia, have had a close but fraught relationship; Brafman moves back to the 1930s to reveal what set their conflicts in motion, as well as to introduce a family heirloom that plays a key role many decades later.

Two caveats: 1) There is a lot of Jewish culture here (but not much Judaism per se), so non-Jews may find some of the stories both somewhat confusing and potentially informative. But it is not central to the conflicts, which are universal and thus very recognizable. 2) This is really more of an interconnected series of stories than a novel, so there is a lot of variation in time, place, and circumstance, and the book doesn’t wrap up as neatly as one would expect in a traditional novel.

Bertrand Court is a family melodrama elevated by its social and psychological concerns and Brafman’s sensitive characterizations of complex and flawed humans.


Quicksand

By Malin Persson Giolito

Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Other Press, 2016

Before becoming a writer, Malin Persson Giolito was a lawyer with the largest firm in Scandinavia and an official with the European Commission in Belgium. Quicksand, her fourth novel but her first translated into English, is a riveting and disturbing read, an indictment of modern Swedish society, from childrearing and education to immigration and the justice system.

Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg has been in jail for nine months, awaiting trial for her part in a massacre at her high school that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Quicksand is superficially a courtroom drama, but that is just the access point for Persson Giolito to explore the circumstances that led the outstanding student from a good family to a series of decisions that have made her a pariah across Sweden. Quicksand reminded me of the controversial 2007 murder case of American foreign exchange student Amanda Knox and two recent novels loosely based on her experiences, Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois and Abroad by Katie Crouch.

Quicksand stands out for several reasons: Maja’s absorbing (and self-absorbed) narration, the ruthless psychological portrayal of the main characters, the crisp and realistic dialogue, and Persson Giolito’s incisive analytical powers. You will tear through this 495-page “case study” with the single-minded intensity that only the best novels produce. And it will give you much to ponder in the weeks and months after you have read it.


The Book of Esther

By Emily Barton

Tim Duggan Books/Crown, 2016

While dystopian fiction is all the rage now, there is something to be said for “alternative history” fiction, too. These speculative novels ask the “what if?” questions we all wonder about or, in some cases, pose questions that have never occurred to most of us but are intriguing and thought-provoking.

Emily Barton imagines an alternative 1942, in which a nation of warrior Jews called the Khazars exists between Germania and the city of Stalingrad, both literally and figuratively. The story is set in motion when Germania invades Khazaria, and Esther, the daughter of a high-ranking government official flees across the steppe to find a legendary village of kabbalists who can turn her into a man. She believes this is the only way she will be able to persuade her people that the invaders don’t just mean war, they seek the elimination of the Khazars, and to lead them into battle for their very existence.

The Book of Esther is a multi-genre hybrid fiction that is equal parts speculative, historical, literary, and feminist. This is a polarizing novel that, more than most, can only be judged in the reading, not from a synopsis like this. While not everything she attempts is successful (it rarely is in this type of novel), she deserves credit for her inventive creative vision.

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Three Australian novelists you need to know: Grenville, London & Wyld

kate grenville by roberta parkin   The Secret River

Photo of Kate Grenville by Roberta Parkin, Sydney Morning Herald, 2006

Joan London   gilgamesh_joan_london

Photo of Joan London by Tony Ashby, Sydney Morning Herald, 2008

Evie Wyld  All the Birds, Singing


 

The Australian literary scene has produced several male writers who have achieved note internationally. Patrick White, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Murray Ball and Peter Temple are all widely reviewed, occasionally read and generally well admired in the Northern Hemisphere. Among women writers, however, only Colleen McCullough is truly well known outside of Australia. That’s a shame because there are several other female Australian writers of note who should be much better known outside their home country. Three in particular are world-class writers. Each has gained a measure of critical respect internationally but remains virtually unknown to readers.

Kate Grenville came to the publishing world’s attention with her fourth novel, The Idea of Perfection, in 1999. It won the Orange Award (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2000. But her best work, and one that everyone should read, is The Secret River, published in 2006. Based on the story of her great-great-great-grandfather, who was sentenced to the penal colony in New South Wales in 1806, it tells the story of the early settlement of Australia by British convicts. The Secret River won the Commonwealth Prize, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, and the NSW Premier’s Community Relations Prize. It was also short-listed for the UK’s Man Booker Prize.

If you are going to read only one book about Australia’s history and its effect on the nation’s culture, it should be The Secret River. By following British convict William Thornhill (based on her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman) as he struggles to adapt to life in what feels like another world, Grenville is able to examine the fraught history of relations between the colonists and the Aborigines who have inhabited the Australian continent for over 40,000 years. Suffice to say, their first contact is not a mutually respectful and beneficial encounter.

Grenville’s writing brilliantly captures Australia as a place; its presence looms over the novel. You will breathe the red dust, watch the blinding southern sun’s reflection on the Hawkesbury River, and smell the menthol scent of the eucalyptus (gum) trees.

Grenville followed The Secret River with The Lieutenant (2008), which details the tentative and developing friendship between an officer of the First Fleet and an Aborigine girl of exceptional intelligence. In Sarah Thornhill (2011), Grenville completed this loose “early Australia” trilogy by returning to the family at the center of The Secret River, taking the subject of white-black relations to its logical conclusion. I recommend all three novels, but only The Secret River is required reading.

Another writer worth knowing is Joan London (not to be confused with former Good Morning America co-host Joan Lunden). London grew up in Western Australia, which features prominently in her writing. Her first book, the story collection Sister Ships, won The Melbourne Age Book of the Year award in 1986. Her second collection of stories, Letter to Constantine, won the Steele Rudd Award and the West Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction in 1994.

London’s best work is her first novel, Gilgamesh, published in 2001. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and won The Age Book of the Year award for fiction. Gilgamesh was also shortlisted for both the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. Internationally, it was long-listed for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Set in the years preceding World War II, Gilgamesh follows Edith, a 17-year-old who lives with her unstable mother and difficult sister in rural Western Australia. The story is set in motion when her London-based brother Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram visit her after working on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Edith and Aram experience a powerful chemistry.

Two years later, having given birth to Aram’s son and saved money from her job at a seaside hotel, Edith boards a ship intending to go to Armenia to find Aram. She is befriended by an Armenian businessman who helps sneak her into the country and for whom she then works as a caretaker. She begins to build a life in Yerevan, but the war presses down upon everyone and she is forced to flee across the border into Iraq to meet Leopold, who drives her to Syria, where she waits out the war.

Edith — now profoundly changed by her difficult experiences — and her son Jim make their way back to Australia, where a new set of difficulties at work, school, and home await them. The narrative shifts its emphasis to Jim’s coming of age, culminating in an important letter from overseas. Like the wandering King Gilgamesh, Edith’s journey takes her to many places and introduces her to a range of people, each of whom is searching for his place and purpose. London’s prose is both spare and lyrical, with a hypnotic and haunting effect.

London’s second novel, The Good Parents, was published in April 2008 and won the 2009 Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary awards. London’s third novel, The Golden Age, was published in Australia in January 2014.

Evie Wyld is a relative newcomer on the Australian and international literary scene. Her second novel, All the Birds, Singing, was published last year to acclaim in Australia and the UK (where she was named a Granta Best of Young British Novelists in 2008), and has just been released in the U.S.

Wyld is a powerful prose stylist whose approach is perfectly suited to the story of Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living with her dog and a flock of sheep on an isolated English island. When her sheep are killed one by one, mysterious events occur and strangers appear, Jake is forced to confront her past, which she thought she had securely left behind halfway around the world in Australia.

Wyld is a master of mood, using a methodical pace and distinctive diction and syntax to create an often ominous or foreboding atmosphere that makes her novels feel like very artsy and literary mysteries. Fans of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca should find Evie Wyld’s books to be just what the doctor ordered.