My Favorite Books of 2014

Everything I Never Told You  The UnAmericans  The Hundred-Year House  The Home Place  Life Drawing    Now We Will Be Happy  Be Safe I Love You  Faulty Predictions   The Bees   Flashes of War

2014 was a very strong year for literary fiction by women. I tried to make a Top 10 list, but that proved impossible. So I decided instead to make a list of my favorite books of the year and ended up with 30. They are listed in alphabetical order rather than by ranking. I will say that a handful of books knocked my reading socks off and stayed with me for a long time. Those titles are noted with an asterisk. I think there is something for everyone here.

It should go without saying  that there were hundreds of books that I did not get around to reading (some are still on my to-be-read list), and I’m certain many of them would have made this list had I read them. So this is just a very idiosyncratic list of the best books one guy read in 2014. Make of that what you will.

The links will take you to my review of each book. I hope you will also take the time to read my interviews with many of these authors. You can find them by visiting the Index page or using the Search bar.

Molly Antopol — The UnAmericans: Stories*

Robin Black — Life Drawing

Vanessa Blakeslee — Train Shots: Stories

Katie Crouch — Abroad

Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Amina Gautier — Now We Will Be Happy: Stories*

Lisa Gornick — Tinderbox

Cristina Henriquez — The Book of Unknown Americans

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You*

Lacy Johnson — The Other Side: A Memoir*

Kristina Kahakauwila — This is Paradise: Stories*

Lily King — Euphoria*

Maya Lang — The Sixteenth of June

Carrie La Seur — The Home Place*

Lisa Lenzo — Strange Love: Stories

Jessica Levine — The Geometry of Love

Karin Lin-Greenberg — Faulty Predictions: Stories*

Rebecca Makkai — The Hundred-Year House*

Francesca Marciano — The Other Language 

Laura McBride — We Are Called to Rise

Celeste Ng — Everything I Never Told You*

Laline Paull — The Bees

Virginia Pye — River of Dust

Claudia Rankine — Citizen* (poetry-essay-memoir hybrid)

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War: Stories*

Brittani Sonnenberg — Home Leave

Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven*

Rene Steinke — Friendswood

Natalia Sylvester — Chasing the Sun

Tiphanie Yanique — Land of Love and Drowning

 

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Author Paulette Livers on How NOT to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.

Guest blogger Anne Korkeakivi: My Summer Without Men (Writers)

Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK), Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.) 

 

This summer, I hit the road.

Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.

Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.

These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.

When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.

I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.

This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.

  1. A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
  2. Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
  3. A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
  4. During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
  5. The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
  6. The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
  7. After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
  8. A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
  9. A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
  10. A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
  11. A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
  12. A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
  13. A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
  14. A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.

Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.

If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.

If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)

Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?

Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.

Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

 

Guest Blogger Robin Black: On Learning To Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book For Their Wives

Robin Black is the author of Life Drawing (Random House, 2014), a compelling study of betrayal and penance in a marriage between a writer and a painter, and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a short story collection published in 2010. [You can read my review of Life Drawing here.] Both books received critical acclaim in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the UK. 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. Here, Black addresses the vexing matter of men who won’t read fiction written by women.

RobinBlack2014   Life Drawing

I was at a party earlier this summer, a celebration of my novel, thrown by old friends, and filled with couples around my age, middle-aged men and women. My host had asked me to read a bit from the book, which I did, and I answered some questions about my process, about the publishing world; and then I stepped out of the spotlight so that something closer to a normal party might begin. A normal party that included one guest selling and signing books, that is.

Those interactions, while also wonderful, are inherently a little socially awkward, so I expected to feel both fortunate and a bit sheepish, which I did. But this time I also felt a different, distinctive discomfort settling in as more than one man approached me, book in hand, and told me he wanted to buy it  – as a present for his wife. You can make it out to. . . Carol. . . Jane. . . Kathy. . .

Whatever.

I began to feel grumpy. I don’t believe it showed, but I was starting to feel unmistakably irked at the unspoken assumption that I had written a book for women. Only women. That a man who bought a copy for himself might as well also buy a pair of heels and some jewelry to accessorize the purchase.

To be clear, I wasn’t ticked off at these individual men. They were – to a man, so to speak – warm and encouraging, said kind things about the work I’d read aloud, and expressed interest in the whole process of how a book comes into the world. My friends are lovely people, and they had gathered lovely friends of their own. But . . . One particularly engaging man told me he belonged to a book group. A men’s book group. “You should suggest this to them,” I said, poking a bit, consciously making mischief.

At least he was forthcoming. “It’s really tough to get them to read books written by women,” he said. “It’s viewed as. . . “ He shook his head and shrugged.

Sigh.

 

I recognize that I am writing for a blog that owes its very existence to this problem, that I’m not exactly introducing an unfamiliar phenomenon here. But something about this experience, the line of actual, living, breathing men armed with spellings of women’s names, made the imbalance feel true and – excuse me – just so fucking weird, in a way that no statistics, no documented trends ever have.

Really, guys? Really?

Yes. Really.

Part of why it’s weird is because it never occurs to me when I write that I am writing for one sex almost exclusively, which it turns out I am. To me, I am just a person, writing a novel for other people to read. As a writer, I am obsessed with the simple, central question of why people do what they do. Is that a particularly feminine  preoccupation? I hope not. I hope it’s something we’re all thinking about, a lot.

“Men love this book,” I finally said to one fellow guest, thinking of the men who have, many of them friends and family, their ages ranging from 23 to 81. “You might be surprised.”

“Well, I did like what you read, a lot. . .”

Dot. Dot. Dot. Awkward silence.

All righty, then. I guess I’m not going to change the world at a book party.

“And how is Carol spelled? Is there an e?”

 

I’m not angry at any individual. I’m not a bit sure I’m angry at all, though the word is, of course, inevitably, tiresomely melded to all observations that might be termed “feminist” – and so I feel some obligation to contend with the presumption. In truth, a bit weary, on this day anyway, I feel more frustrated than angry; and as for the frustration, it’s certainly not lastingly directed at the men who bought my book, much less the friends who so generously celebrated it. My primary emotion about that evening is one of gratitude.

The frustration itself is familiar, like some kind of natural element, innate to existence by now. It disperses into the air we all breathe and refills my lungs; strolls with me down sidewalks; prickles, uncomfortable, as I watch stereotypes play out on my TV. This a Big Social Problem, and so society, culture, history must all shoulder the blame – though of course, as always, it falls on individuals to fix what entire civilizations have broken. It isn’t ever acceptable to let the weariness win out.

Or, it turns out, to forget to be angry. Or to disown the emotion because others have used its name as a weapon against women. . . Shame on me for that. Anger it is.

And so the analysis begins, anew: Why don’t men read books by woman?

Friends and I have puzzled over that one endlessly. Is it the fear of being seen holding a pink cover, a logical if unfortunate response to an unabashedly gender-coded message that literary marketing has sent? Is it the outgrowth of a process that begins with people telling newborn girls how sweet and pretty they are, encouraging them as they grow, to be nice and worry about relationships, while telling boys how big and strong they are, encouraging them to be tough and smart? Does that well-documented distinction make reading what women write – always presumptively about domestic relationships – seem a feminine activity? (While not making reading male-authored fiction about domestic relationships problematic – as if those books have some kind of blue-for-boys won’t-lessen–your-manhood stamp of approval on them.) Is this just another corner of the world in which those who are taught to view women as equated with emotions, and emotions as equated with weakness (and therefore, by the transitive property. . .) reward the lifelong brainwashing inflicted on them by acting accordingly?

Or, to put it another way, do girl books have girl cooties? Is it really that much a legacy of the schoolyard? Of the nursery?

Probably. That’s all doubtless part of it. But, having gone through what felt like a strangely ritualistic enactment of a statistic I haven’t wanted to believe, I am filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say?  To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?

Just as the fact that men skip over female fiction authors has never felt as real to me as it now does, the possibilities of what that fact might mean have never seemed as serious. And to the extent that I am limiting my exploration here to “men” and “women” as if our genders divide anything like so clearly, let me just say, I have no doubt that these issues are all the more complex and disheartening for those whose gender does not fit mainstream definition.

But back to the mainstream for a moment, back to traditional gender presumptions, which are almost certainly at the root of all this. The book that I wrote has been described in reviews as tense, taut, and brutal. I’m not suggesting that had it been called tender, sweet, and heart-warming, men would be right not to read it. But I must say that when you write a book so commonly described with adjectives that are viewed in this (dysfunctional, sexist) society as “male,” and men still aren’t interested in reading it because the author is female, it’s . . . it’s depressing. That’s the word. Depressing.

To me, anyway. I am bummed out about this, since that session of learning how to spell yet another set of women’s names. Not because I don’t value my female readers nor because of the impact on my career or sales numbers, but because of the questions to which this imbalance inevitably leads, because of my hunch that this book-avoiding nonsense is only a relatively innocuous hint at something much more important, something both endemic and profoundly ugly, something that has precious little to do with literary taste.

STATION ELEVEN’s humanity and sensitivity elevate post-apocalyptic premise to literary fiction

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes   Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Knopf, Sept. 9, 2014

$24.95, 352 pages

In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world.

Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. Paparazzo journalist-turned-EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a post onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.

Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country.

Since he has nowhere to go and no way to get there, Chaudhary heads for his disabled brother Frank’s highrise apartment, which he stocks with food and sundries to ride out the coming epidemic. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.

The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life, from his childhood on a small island off the British Columbia coast to his three marriages. We meet his first wife, Miranda, a younger woman from his home island who is a budding artist-writer working on a futuristic graphic novel entitled “Station Eleven.” Before long, stunning actress Elizabeth Colton entices the self-absorbed Leander and becomes his second wife, with whom Leander has their only child, Tyler. We are also introduced to Leander’s long-time best friend, Clark Thompson.

The novel then moves forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.

Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. Using scrapped pickup trucks and other vehicles in a modern version of stagecoaches (one emblazoned with the phrase “Survival is insufficient” from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) to cross the frontier, they plod along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, giving alternating performances of classical music and two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter? Interestingly, Raymonde has one of only two copies ever produced of “Station Eleven,” which Arthur Leander had given her to read during her time backstage.

Conflict ensues when members of the TS are confronted by a ruthless religious cult led by a young man called The Prophet. Who are they and where did they come from? Who is this “prophet”? What do they want?

We learn that the only significant group of survivors in the area has been living at the Severn City airport down the coast. People who have been there speak in awestruck terms of the Museum of Civilization there.  Who are these people and why did they end up at the airport? How have they managed to create a stable society for 20 years?

Three characters from earlier in the book are among the Severn City group; how did they come to be in a medium-sized city in Michigan when all flights were grounded to stop the spread of the Georgian flu? As in our world, people are connected in countless unseen and unknown ways.

The interactions of the many characters across generations and borders provides a look into human nature, before and after the apocalyptic pandemic, and poses thought-provoking questions about how we choose to live individually and as a society, what it all adds up to, and whether we would make similar choices if we had to start over.

Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible, though some may quibble with the world she imagines (some readers and reviewers have commented that survivors would almost certainly manage to get society back on the grid in less than 20 years). Her insight into the characters is impressive; these moving character studies add noticeably to what might otherwise seem like just a genre novel. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama.  The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.

The Hundred-Year House offers absorbing hybrid of family saga, literary mystery, examination of creative life

The Hundred-Year House   Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House

By Rebecca Makkai

Viking, July 10, 2014

$26.95, 335 pages

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest. When he learns that several file cabinets containing Laurelfield Arts Colony records are locked up in the attic, Doug becomes a man obsessed. His biography has stalled early in the research stage and he fervently believes the documentation needed to break his writer’s block and lead to a groundbreaking biography will be found in those file cabinets. But Gracie won’t let him or anyone else near the attic.

Doug and Zee soon find themselves disturbed by the huge portrait of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, hanging in the dining room. Violet’s spirit permeates Laurelfield, and not because she and her husband were the estate’s original residents starting in 1900 or because she was involved with the opening of the arts colony. Violet committed suicide somewhere on the property, but no one will say where or how. What is known is that Augustus Devohr, of the aristocratic but cursed Toronto Devohrs, had the lakeside estate built for Violet in 1900.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug. The plot is complicated, with many characters living at or orbiting around Laurelfield in each era.

The Hundred-Year House shows us that the history of both people and a place are not always what we expect and in some cases can never truly be known. This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place. The story of Laurelfield the family estate and Laurelfield Arts Colony is even more compelling and provocative than you can imagine. When you finish the Prologue (set in 1900) on page 335, you will be tempted to turn to Part I (1999) and start all over again, looking for all the clues and insights you missed the first time through.

I enjoyed The Hundred-Year House from beginning to end (or should I say from the end to the beginning?), and it stands as one of my favorite books of 2014.

 

 

TINDERBOX an absorbing family drama that benefits from author’s psychological insights

Tinderbox    lisa_gornick

Tinderbox

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books, Sept. 10, 2013

$26.00, 299 pages

Some books, like people, make a poor first impression. The cover art of Tinderbox lacks the gravitas of the book’s “mysterious stranger meets fragile family” premise. It features a photo of an open matchbook and a small plastic toy dinosaur on a white surface, surrounded by a pale pink border and topped by a light font. But, having heard good things about the book, the serious reader soldiers on, remembering the old saying about not judging a book by its cover.

The first section of the book doesn’t help matters; something about the exposition seems forced and heavy-handed. The characters, upper income Upper West Siders, seem cliched and not especially likable. The descriptions include too many labels and product names. It’s all just a little off-putting. But one doesn’t put a book down after only 25 pages. Have faith in the author and the story she has to tell; all will become clear.

Just as people who make a poor first impression can go on to become a close friend or even a spouse, so does Tinderbox slowly and steadily win over the reader. By page 50, most of your reservations will have been left behind, as the rising action pulls you in. By page 100, it has become a taut and absorbing story of a family laboring under manifold burdens and secrets. By page 200, it has utterly won you over with the quality of the writing, the probing insights into characters and conflicts, and — yes — the likability of the characters, of whom you have grown quite fond.

Lisa Gornick is a psychotherapist by training, and her background informs Tinderbox. The protagonist, Myra, is a middle-aged therapist working out of a ground floor office in her four-story home on West 95th Street. Her daughter Caro is the workaholic director of a preschool in East Harlem for underprivileged kids, with no love life to speak of. Myra has invited her son Adam, along with his wife, Rachida, and their young son, Omar, to live with her for the year while Rachida completes a respecialization fellowship to switch from dermatology to primary care. Adam is a feckless, phobic, and under-employed screenwriter of second-rate Westerns, obsessed with movies in the manner of an overgrown Film Studies major. Rachida is a driven Moroccan Jew who has married into a secular Jewish family. Myra’s ex-husband, Larry, is a cardiologist who has remarried and now lives in Tucson; their relationship is polite but distant.

Into this already fragile domestic drama comes Eva, a young girl from Peru who has been recommended to Myra by her cousin Ursula in Lima. She has had a difficult life, having lost her mother in a house fire when she was just a child. Interestingly, she is convinced that she is descended from a small group of Sephardic Jews living in the Amazon city of Iquitos, where Moroccan Jews had once settled to work in the rubber export trade. Myra, despite initial reservations, agrees to allow Eva to become the newly-expanded Mendelsohn family’s nanny. What follows is a textbook example of the expression “No good deed goes unpunished.” The law of unintended consequences plays itself out in such compelling fashion that readers will find themselves racing to the last page.

As is usually the case, the mysterious stranger is a far more complex person than is first believed. At first, all proceeds smoothly. But Eva has night terrors and sucks her thumb when she sleeps. She begins to reveal her horrific life story to Myra, who is torn between her desire to help and the obligations of psychotherapeutic ethics. At the same time, we learn that Adam and Rachida’s marriage is troubled and that each is guarding a potentially explosive secret. Then Eva discovers something about one of the family members that will cause this tinderbox to catch fire, both literally and figuratively. As Gornick so powerfully puts it, Eva is the match that lights the kindling of Myra’s good intentions.

Gornick has written a smart, adult domestic drama that explores the varied family members’ lives and the many fraught relationships that can exist within one family. These are characters with realistic foibles who are trying their best to manage the many roles they each play and the expectations placed upon them by others. While the resolution may be too neatly constructed, it makes for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, for the reader has come to care deeply about these very human and all-too-familiar characters.